The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Mourning Jewelry: A Spooky Tradition?

Halloween approaches and the MHS has decked the halls with skulls, skeletons, and scythes. Or if you don’t find those creepy, then how about rings full of human hair? How about a brooch featuring a snake eating its own tail (the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity—in itself a scary thing!)?

The spooky objects on display are part of the exhibition In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, as described in a previous post. The season is right for a closer look at one of the most haunting and emblematic pieces in the exhibition.

This ring, part of the MHS collections, commemorates John Gray, the infant son of John and Mary Otis Gray and nephew of political writer Mercy Otis Warren. John died at only six days old. The ring has a design of three joined enameled scrolls and a gold foil skull under a square crystal. The inscription that runs around the outside of the band reads, “J:GRAY OB·17·SEP 1763·Æ 6D,” meaning “John Gray died 17 September 1763 aged 6 days.” Less than two months after the infant’s death, his mother died as well, and a ring was made in her memory.

While skull imagery might seem outré today, it was commonplace in both memento mori jewelry and mourning jewelry before the neoclassical style. Jewels bearing skulls, skeletons, gravediggers’ tools, and other seemingly grim images served to remind the wearer that they will die and should therefore live with the next world in mind. Or, as another ring’s inscription eloquently puts it, “A good life a happie death.”

To learn more about mourning jewelry, and to see some truly beautiful and affecting pieces, visit In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry at the MHS. The exhibition is free and open to the public. The full-color companion volume, written by the exhibition’s co-curator Sarah Nehama, can be purchased in person at the MHS or online at and Barnes & Noble.


permalink | Published: Friday, 19 October, 2012, 10:00 AM