The gravestones on display in St Andrews Cathedral’s museum date from the 1560s, after the Reformation. The stones, with their carved skeletons, hourglasses and depictions of death, offer a fascinating insight into the mindset of this period.
Each gravestone records the name, age and date of death of the person it commemorates. There are also coats of arms and family crests. Some show symbols of the deceased’s trade, such as compasses and anchors for sailors. Skeletons and skulls are common on these stones; they represent death and graphically illustrate the body’s decay after death. Hourglasses are also common, symbolising the passage of time that brings death to all. Sometimes the grim reaper, ‘Death’ himself, is pictured, holding a scythe.
The end of life in 17th and 18th century Scotland was steeped in ritual and tradition. A series of customs accompanied death and burial. Deid-bells were tolled to broadcast the news of a death; it is thought that these bells may have originally been intended to ward off evil spirits. Women traditionally cleaned the corpse to prepare it for the next life, in a process called ‘lying out’. The corpse was watched throughout the period between death and burial, both to ensure the deceased was truly dead and to protect from theft. During this time a ‘lykewake’ was held, this boisterous event helped with strong emotions and may have been intended to discourage evil spirits. In some parts of Scotland a person called a ‘sin eater’ would eat bread and salt from a plate placed on the corpse during the funeral to absolve any sins. After the funeral, which was usually only attended by men, mourners would gather for a dredgy or feast. Edward Burt described a dredgy in 1770 saying “wine is filled about as fast as it can go round; till there is hardly a sober person among them…”.
- Information signs at St Andrews Cathedral
- Official Souvenir Guide: St Andrews Castle, Cathedral and Historic Burgh