Object of the Week: Gruesome death's head funeral spoons made for grieving 17th century families

By Ben Miller | 16 September 2015

This week we bring you two macabre spoons from the Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York

A photo of a 17th century silver spoon with an engraving of a skull on it, held by the York Company of Merchant Adventurers.
© Kippa Matthews
These death’s head or funeral spoons were made for presentation to members of the deceased’s family during the 17th century. Relatively few remain, probably because they were rather gruesome and were not kept for long.

A photo of a 17th century silver spoon with an engraving of a skull on it, held by the York Company of Merchant Adventurers
© Kippa Matthews
The spoon on the left was made in York by Thomas Mangy in around 1666. The reverse bears the Arms of Crompton of Driffield, East Yorkshire. It measures 185 mm and weighs 42.5g.

A photo of two 17th century silver spoons with engravings of skulls on them, held by the York Company of Merchant Adventurers.
© Kippa Matthews
The one on the right, a silver spoon with a shallow bowl, is engraved on the front of the stem ‘Live to die’, with the reverse reading ‘Die to live’. On the top of the stem is a small engraved skull and on the reverse the Arms of the Strickland family of Boynton Hall, near Bridlington, East Yorkshire. It is seven millimetres smaller and weighs 46.6g.

A photo of a painting of a 17th century painting of a male merchant holding a book, held by the York Company of Merchant Adventurers
© Kippa Matthews
This painting of a Merchant shows his hand on a skull – and, if you look very closely, there is a miniature skull on his signet ring.

It appears that the spoons and the painting highlighted the importance in the early 17th Century of Memento Mori (Latin for ‘remember (that you have) to die’).

The idea was of perfecting your character and living a good life, as everything is transient and not to be hung up on earthly goods and pleasures.

This seems to have been particularly relevant to a number of wealthy merchants of the York Company of Merchant Adventurers during this time.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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