Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Cadaver tomb

A cadaver tomb (or "memento mori tomb", Latin for "reminder of death") is a sarcophagus that resembles a carved stone bunk-bed with the deceased shown alive on the top level (life-sized and often kneeling in prayer) and in death on the bottom level, in the grave and complete with worms, rot, and shroud. The term is sometimes used for a tomb that shows only the "cadaver" (= rotting corpse) without the live person. It is intended as an allegory about how we are all going to end up and, thus, how transient earthly glory is. A depiction of a rotting cadaver in art (as opposed to a skeleton) is called a transi.

Beginning in the 15th century, cadaver tombs were a departure, in tomb architecture, from the usual practice of showing merely an effigy of the person as they were in life.

The tombs were made only for high-ranking nobles, usually royalty or bishops, because they had to be rich, to afford to have one made, and powerful, to be allotted space for one in a church. The ones for royalty were generally double tombs for a king and his queen, and those are the ones usually meant by the term "cadaver tomb."

The first cadaver tomb ever constructed, shown to the left, is in Lincoln Cathedral (England). It is the one of Bishop Richard Fleming, who founded Lincoln College, Oxford, and died in 1431.
The tomb on the left is the one of Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury (1414 - 1443), in Canterbury Cathedral.
The example on the left is a cadaver tomb which does not show the live person. It is a tomb for John Wakeman in Tewkesbury Abbey. Wakeman was abbot of Tewkesbury Abbey 1531 - 1539, then the abbey was dissolved, he retired, and he later became 1st bishop of Gloucester. He prepared this tomb himself, with vermin crawling on his skeletal corpse, but never used it; he is buried in Forthampton.
Some of the finest examples of cadaver tombs are those of the French kings in Saint Denis Basilica. The tomb on the left is the one of Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici, constructed in the late 16th century.

See also: