Death Symbolism (9 Top Meanings & Symbols)

The symbolism of death is seen all around us. We can see it in movies, music, art, and literature.

Common symbols of death include:

  • Blackness – The color black represents death.
  • Clocks – Grandfather clocks often represent death because they’re ticking toward your death.
  • Vultures – Vultures are found near death.
  • Chrysanthemums – These flowers are a sign of death and mourning.
  • Cypress Trees – These trees also represent death and mourning.
  • The Grim Reaper – A fictional character that appears when people die.
  • Ravens – Ravens are believed to prophesize death.
  • The Four Horsemen – In Christianity, these horsemen appear at the apocalypse.

death symbolism

By studying the symbols of death more closely we can see into the beyond and take a look at our own mortality. Symbols like clocks, ravens, skulls, cypress trees, and the color black all have special meaning when talking about the symbolism of death.

See also: Death Metaphors

Symbolism of Death

1. Blackness

Nothing symbolizes death more fervently than the color black. Death is the ultimate darkness, the end of any light in your life. The opposite of white — innocence and light — black represents all that is dark and evil in the world.

The art world is filled with examples of this color (or the absence of color) and the decay and darkness it represents. Books and movies, and especially poetry have also utilized black to represent death, nothingness, and the end.

Clothing goes a long way in representing death and mourning. There are many examples of black clothing as a representation of death. For instance, for centuries, grieving family members have worn black to show that they are in mourning after the loss of a loved one.

Another example of black clothing representing death is a black band on police badges when a fellow officer dies This is not only a sign of respect but also a symbol that his or her life has been snuffed out. Finally, the popular grim reaper from countless books and movies wears a black robe when he comes with his scythe to take your soul. The wearing of black certainly signifies death.

Go Deeper: Darkness Symbolism

2. Clocks

Clocks, grandfather clocks, and other timepieces all act as symbols of death. The idea surrounding clocks as a symbol of death is that the clock keeps track of our time on earth. When the clock runs out, so does our time. From baby new year to Father Time, time is a symbol of the cycle of life.

Many writers use the symbol of a clock or timepiece in their work. Emily Dickinson, known best for her poems of death, utilizes this symbolism in her poem “A Clock Stopped.” In this piece she discusses “the dial of life” and shows how the minutes of life can be counted until we go to meet our maker. When poets make metaphors about death, clocks are common symbols they use.

Along with many examples of clocks in writing, movies also show time passing very symbolically. For instance, cinematic directors accentuate the death symbolism by having a ticking clock that will dislodge a bomb when time has elapsed.

This is both a literal and symbolic meaning of death. Time of day also matters to death. Nighttime,  and especially the hour of midnight,  draws the macabre closer to the real world. When the clock stops, so does your life.

Read Also: Shadow Symbolism

3. Vultures

A vulture straddles the spirit world, and is seen as a messenger between life and death. They represent imminent death because they circle waiting for something to die and then they swoop in to get it.

Mayans saw vultures eating dead animals, and considered it a symbol of transformation. Since the time of the Mayans, this transformative nature of vultures symbolizes the transition between life and death.

See more about vulture symbolism here.

4. Chrysanthemums

Just like roses are a universal symbol of love, chrysanthemums symbolize death in many European countries, and are a sign of grief and mourning. 

In Asian countries, white chrysanthemums herald adversity, sadness and grief. Because it can survive the winter frost, it is also a symbol of immortality. With certain traits like the hardiness of mums, they make a good symbol of death.

5. Cypress Trees

From ancient times, cypress trees have been a symbol of mourning. And up to modern times, these are the tree you are most likely to find in cemeteries in both the Muslim and European worlds.

One reason cypress trees represent death is found in the Bible. They represent evergreens and therefore everlasting life, so they are a good plant to represent death. Just as the tree itself will never die, the cypress tree in a cemetery is an example of everlasting life.

symbols of death

Symbols in Literature

6. The Grim Reaper

The earliest mention of the Grim Reaper is in English literature in a book called “The Circle of Human Life,” published in 1847. The Grim Reaper is dressed in black and carries a giant scythe in order to gather souls.

In Irish folklore, the Grim Reaper is represented by the last person in the area who died, and is coming to take the newly deceased away. He is often accompanied by a Banshee, who screams and cries during this process.

Many movies show the Grim Reaper in action. From Scrooged to Meet Joe Black to The Seventh Seal, Hollywood has grabbed onto the symbolism of the Grim Reaper in its many forms. Usually coming at night, dressed in black, and with the instrument of death, the scythe, movies love to show this very popular symbol to represent death.

7. Raven

No animal represents death more powerfully than the beady-eyed, black raven. But they have a depth of meaning that goes beyond just the carrion-eating animal.

They are also known for prophecy and intelligence. Because the raven has this depth of meaning, it is often used in poetry, art, and storytelling.

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is a great example of how a raven symbolizes death. The speaker is lamenting over his lost love, and the raven shows up one night when the is mourning his woman, Lenore. The raven refuses to leave, and his chorus of “Nevermore” tells the speaker that he will be happy and peaceful “nevermore.”

8. Skulls

The skull being a symbol of death is a no-brainer, literally. The skull is the part of a person’s brain that is left over when the rest of his body decays. For centuries, burial techniques left bodies more susceptible to the elements of the earth, and skulls in graveyards and other places were easily found. Skulls are also shown sometimes with cross bones that crisscross them, a symbol which originated in the Middle Ages.

Many examples of literature exhibit skulls. All the way back to the writing of William Shakespeare, skulls have been a symbol of death. In Act 5 of “Hamlet,” the title character is in a graveyard playing catch with skulls. This symbolizes him facing his own mortality, as he puzzles through the death of his father.

9. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Found in the very apocalyptic last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, the four horsemen of the apocalypse come galloping in to set the end days in motion with their fiery personalities. 

Each horse and rider is symbolic of something different. The white horse is ridden by Christ or the Antichrist, and symbolizes conquest. The red horse symbolizes the bloodshed of war. The black horse carries a balance scale and symbolizes famine.

Finally, the fourth horse, also known as the pale horsemen, symbolizes death itself. The number four mirrors the importance of four to the creation story, and at the end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation, represents the end of the world.

For centuries people have grappled with the idea of their own mortality, and have leaned on symbols to buoy them in times of distress. The symbolism in death is found quite prominently in literature, as well as in the natural world.

Whether the black beady eyed raven or the weeping cypress tree, nature offers symbols to make humans understand death better. Literature also offers symbols such as clocks, skulls and interpretations of the color black to further our understanding of the transition between life and death.

Dreams about Death

Although it makes sense that dreaming of death implies that we are thinking of or worried about dying ourselves, there are many interpretations of death dreams.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we are dying, but is more symbolic of a big change coming into our lives.

  • First of all, if you dream of death, take a minute to analyze what kind of death it is. For example, a very violent death can signify anger. A peaceful death could symbolize a change that will transition more peacefully for you.
  • Another common dream interpretation is that if someone dies in your dream, it simply means that you are afraid of the unknown.
  • Dreaming of death could signify another fear that is manifested. Since death is the most terrible thing that could happen, death might represent some other difficult event happening to you.
  • If you dream about the death of a loved one, that implies that whatever part of yourselves that is most like them, will in some way be changed.
  • In general, dreaming about death symbolizes a change is needed and some part of the status quo is going to die.

Conclusion

The topic of death has fascinated philosophers, poets, and humankind since the beginning of time. What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife?

death symbolism

Do spirits from beyond the grave communicate with those on earth? Is there really a man in a black robe with a scythe who comes to gather our soul? Death happens to everyone but is perhaps the most mysterious and feared of all life processes.

Poets, philosophers, and artists have struggled to represent death, and in essence, to make some meaning of both death AND life.

Leave a Comment