Understanding Death Symbols: Origins and Meanings

Published April 9, 2021
A raven sits atop a wrought iron fence cackling at the moon at the entrance of a foggy cemetery

A death symbol can be found in several cultures and religions. The death symbol is varied, and each meaning gives insight into the culture that uses it.

Easily Recognize Death Symbol in Most Cultures

There are certain symbols that are so commonplace, they are easily recognized as death symbols. These symbols don't need an explanation of why they are considered symbols of death, while others may be more obscure.

Death Symbols Infographic


In Irish mythology, the banshee female spirit appears as a death omen. The banshee has an ear-piercing screech that announces death.


The dagger is an antiquated symbol of death and mostly obsolete. A dagger was set before or after a person's name to indicate the individual was deceased.

Grim Reaper

The grim reaper is a foreboding figure. This dark hooded figure carries a scythe and is the personification of death.

Grim Reaper

Human Skull

The enduring remains of a human life is the skull. This is a worldwide recognized symbol of death.


The scythe is the death tool of the Grim Reaper. A sickle is sometimes used in place of the scythe.


The skeleton is all that's left of the human body. Like the skull, the skeleton is a symbol of death.

Human skeleton anatomical death

Skull and Crossbones

The skull and crossbones are late Middle Ages death symbols. This symbol was commandeered by pirates and used on bottles of poison.

Symbols of Death Related to Time

Time is often used as a symbol of death. It often seems that each person has a specific amount of time to be in this life and when that time runs out, nothing can prevent death.


The clock is easily identified as a symbol of death. The limit of time constraints is marked by the ticking of a clock.


The hourglass is one of the most recognizable time-related symbols of death. The grains of sand in an hourglass turned upside down eventually run out, symbolizing death.

Flowing hourglass on wooden table


The ancient sundial is one of the symbols of death. The marker of time by the morning sunrise, but nightfall is a perfect symbol of the darkness of death.

What Symbolizes Death of a Loved One

There are many symbols that people associated with the death of a loved one. The color of funeral wear is one of the most commonly associated death symbols.


In the Western world, black is the color of mourning. It is the color of funeral wear.


In Eastern regions of Asia, white is the color of mourning. It is reserved as the color of death.


In South Africa, red is the color of mourning. It represents the Apartheid era of bloodshed.

Coffin on red stage

Purple or Gray

During the Victorian Era, purple and gray were second mourning colors. These were worn for specific periods.

Animals That Are Symbols of Death

There are certain animals that are considered symbols of death. Some of these animals are also omens of evil.


Bats are the symbol of birth, death, and rebirth. They are associated with Vampire mythology.

Black cats

The superstition of a black cat crossing your path states it is bad luck or even an omen of impending death. A black cat found sitting on bed of an ill person is a symbol the person will soon die.


Other cats are often viewed as death symbols. Not surprisingly, throughout history, the cat has been a symbol of death.


The black color of the crow makes it ominous. Its disturbing caw and diet of decaying flesh make the crow a death symbol.


A moth is a powerful symbol of death. When a moth is found in the house of a sick person, it forebodes imminent death.


The owl is a symbol of death in many cultures. It is also a messenger from the dead, and some cultures believe it can carry the dead to heaven.

The Blakiston's fish owl

Ram or Goat Head

The ram or goat head, is a powerful symbol of death. The Baphomet, symbol of the church of Satan, is often portrayed with horns.

Ram in Islam

In Islam, a black and white goat is the symbol of death. This is especially powerful since the goat is sacrificed.


When the raven appears after a bloody battle, it is viewed as a symbol of death. The raven is featured in Edgar Allan Poe's poem, The Raven, and is a death omen and symbol of evil and loss.


Another bird symbol of death, vultures circle above the dying. They are also scavengers that eat decayed carcasses.

Vulture sitting on tree steam

Religious Symbols of Death

Most religions have symbols of death. Some of the symbols also serve as symbols of hope.


Candles in churches and funeral services are lit for remembrance of the dead. Candles are also traditional symbols for funeral services.


The crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ and his resurrection is symbolized with the cross. While the cross is associated with this event, it is also a symbol of hope and promise of everlasting life.


In Buddhism, the wheel is a symbol of death. It is also a symbol of the cycle of life and death and reincarnation.

Burial Related Symbols of Death

The symbols of death are found in cemeteries and other places the dead are interred. There are other symbols of how a body is treated for funeral, such as cremation.


Winged angels are often believed to be messengers of death. Some people believe angels carry souls of the deceased to heaven. Angels are often used as statues for graves, crypts, and tombs.


A cemetery is the resting place for the dead. It is an appropriate symbol of death.


The coffin shape is quickly identified with death. This symbol is used for various reasons, often as a Halloween motif.

Cremation Urn

The cremated remains are typically stored in an urn. This is instantly recognized as a symbol of death.

Funeral mourning urn


A grave marker is recognized as a symbol of death. These are also often used as a Halloween motif.


The pyramids are believed to be elaborate tombs for the Pharaohs. These amazing ancient architectural buildings remain symbols of death.


A sarcophagus is an Egyptian form of a coffin. It was made of stone and the popular burial device of the Pharaohs.

Ancient Egyptian pharaoh mythology artifacts


A tombstone is another grave marker. It is a universal symbol of death.

Plants That Are Symbols of Death

There are many plants, such as flowers and trees, that are symbols of death. These are often used in funerals and as cemetery ornamentation.


Chrysanthemums are one of the flowers associated with death. Widely used in Western funerals, chrysanthemums are another favored funeral flower.

Cypress Tree

The cypress tree is a popular tree planted in cemeteries. It's the tree's roots that make it a popular choice since they won't grow around buried caskets.


Hyacinth is another favored funeral flower. It is often used in funeral wreaths and arrangements.

Purple Crocus Flowers


A popular funeral flower, lilies are used in floral arrangements. The Easter lily is associated with the resurrection of Christ and often chosen for funeral flowers.

Red Poppies

Red poppies were first worn in remembrance of those who died in World War I. The red poppy quickly became a symbol of death.

Understanding Death Symbols and Their Meanings

There are many death symbols throughout the world. When you understand the various meanings of death symbols, you can decide if you wish to use one.

Understanding Death Symbols: Origins and Meanings