Graveyards are full of secrets and symbolism. This is especially the case for cemeteries from the Victorian era when a morbid fascination with death and mourning is evidenced in the elaborate headstones, crypts and funerary statuary that fill cemeteries dating from the 19th century. While not as noticeable as stone angels, obelisks or crosses, the “inverted torch” is one of the most common funerary symbols worldwide that gained popularity at that time.
There are two types of inverted torch – flaming and extinguished – either alone, in pairs or crossed. If the inverted torch has a flame, it symbolizes the flame of eternal life and the Christian belief in resurrection. If there is no flame, it means the extinction of life and mourning. The pictured example has the addition of a wreath, which symbolised eternal life or victory over death, and wings, which symbolized the journey of the soul to the afterlife.
However, like much of the symbolism associated with Christianity, the inverted torch has its origins in paganism. The inverted torch was closely associated with the Greek god of death, Thanatos, who was called Mors in Roman mythology. Interestingly, the wreath and wings are also associated with Thanatos. For the Greeks, the wreath also represented life after death, while the wings represented the god’s role in escorting the spirits of the dead to the underworld.
However, the widespread association of the torch with death was not only due to mythology, but also due to the Roman practice of conducting funerals at night where torches were needed for light and were used to light the funeral pyre.
Inverted torches are no longer in favour for funerary monuments today, since burials are generally much simpler, you will rarely see them. However, given the popularity of funerary symbolism as tattoos, you may see one decorating an arm or back in future!
J.C. Cooper, 1978, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson, New York.