urns in abundance

Tomnahurich graveyard, Inverness Urns were en vogue in the 19th century, not only in Scottish graveyards. It was common in the United States to decorate the grave with an urn.

These urns were quite independent from the crematory aspect as they rarely contained ashes but were used as symbols only.

An urn is reverential, sombre, elegant and has class. Grecian urns made it into many rich houses in Scotland in the 19th century. The idea behind it was created by the great romantic poets of the English tradition and their love of the past. The urn becomes the “cold pastoral”.

Annat graveyard, Torridon

John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

(Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900)

St Mary's Dunvegan, Isle of Skye

Often the urns are draped with a veil, cloth or shroud. Works on mortuary art differ considerably in their views on what the veiled urn actually means.

“Often, the graveyard urn is draped with a veil either symbolising the veil between earth and heaven or used as a reverential accessory.”

(Douglas Keister: Stories in Stone; Gibbs Smith, 2004, p.137).

“The cloth draping the urn symbolically guarded the ashes. The shroud-draped urn is believed by some to mean that the soul has departed the shrouded body for its trip to heaven. Others say that the drape signifies the last partition between life and death.”

Kimberly Powell http://genealogy.about.com/od/cemetery_records/ig/tombstone_symbols/draped_urn.htm

Annat graveyard, Torridon (53)

Ashaig graveyard, Isle of SkyeI would argue from the point of style, which was in itself one of the reasons of choosing that particular design and the shroud or veil then giving the urn an even more classy, slighty Romanesque touch. Since urns (veiled or plain) often make the highest points of a graveyard, I would also argue the case that it might simply be a symbol of power and influence of the family erecting the headstone. They chose an urn that rises elegantly towards heaven.

Annat graveyard, Torridon

urns_by_nme2014-d600y7qAn urn is the epitome of elegance, class and style and had soon replaced the skull and crossbones on many graveyards in Scotland and the world. That is especially true for large cemeteries in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness, where the rich and famous were interred. But it is just as much true for the rural parts of the North of Scotland.

Kishorn graveyardJames Deetz and Edwin S. Dethlefsen claim (after having examined 25 000 headstones in New England), that the urn and willow became popular in Boston right at the beginning of th 19th century, replacing the Cherub and Death’s Head. The changed apparently occurred in harmony with those in England. Scotland is not mentioned. The change has its reasons ”in the ecclesiastical history of New England. The period of decline of death’s head’s coincides with the decline of orthodox Puritanism.”

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project: Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow, www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/deathshead.html

The urn was in its origin a means of storing the ashes in case of cremation. The container then developed into a stylish symbol of death, many would choose in the 19th century. It also has a certain safety aspect, carefully enclosed in an urn like a body would be in a coffin, without rot and mould, just pure and clean stone or marble. The roundness bringing a softer aspect into the harsh reality of he business.


In Scottish rural areas on the other hand, many headstones sprout a variation of the classical rounded urn, square with edges, much harsher. Too fancy would not do in those days.

Liked the read? There’s more here...

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon. 

Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. 

Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.

The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: