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A cadaver tomb (or "memento mori tombmarker", Latin for "reminder of death") is a church monument or tombmarker featuring an effigy in the form of a decomposing body.

This often resembles a carved stone bunk-bed displaying a person as they were before death or soon after their death on the top level (life-sized and sometimes kneeling in prayer) and as a rotting cadaver on the bottom level, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms and other flesh-eating wildlife.

The term can also be used for a monument that shows only the cadaver without the live person. The sculpture is intended as an allegory of how transient earthly glory is, since it depicts what we all finally become. A depiction of a rotting cadaver in art (as opposed to a skeleton) is called a transi. A classic example is the "Transi de René de Chalons" by Ligier Richier, in the church of Saint Etienne in Bar-le-Ducmarker, France.[10977]

Beginning in the second half of the 14th century, cadaver tombs were a departure, in monumental architecture, from the usual practice of showing merely an effigy of the person as they were in life.

These tombs were made only for high-ranking nobles, usually royalty or bishops or abbots, because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for one in a church. The tombs for royalty were often double tombs, for both a king and queen. Some of the finest examples are those of the French kings in the Basilica of Saint-Denismarker outside Parismarker.


Cadaver monuments can be seen in many English cathedrals and some parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedralmarker in Lincolnshiremarker. It is to Bishop Richard Fleming who founded Lincoln College, Oxfordmarker and died in 1431. Canterbury Cathedralmarker houses the well-known cadaver monument to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury (1414 - 1443). Exeter Cathedral houses the 16th century tomb of Preceptor Sylke, inscribed with: 'I am what you will be, and I was what you are. Pray for me I beseech you'. Winchester Cathedral also boasts a cadaver tomb.

The monument prepared for John Wakeman remains in Tewkesbury Abbeymarker. Wakeman was abbot of Tewkesbury from 1531 to 1539. When the abbey was dissolved, he retired, and later became 1st Bishop of Gloucester. He prepared the tomb for himself, with vermin crawling on his carved skeletal corpse, but never used it. He was buried instead, at Forthamptonmarker.


Cadaver monuments and effigies are also found in Italy.


According to data collected in the 19th century on Italian sculptors, the concept of the cadaver monument began with the concept of a place for the soul to rest, or rather, to live. As time passed and the concept of the resurrection evolved, the tomb became thought of as a place for the deceased to merely sleep, "a bed for the sleeper... the idea of the sleeper in his bed being kept up in effigy by the reclining figure on the lid."

By the time monuments were being built by famous Medieval and Renaissance sculptors, "the sarcophagus and bed remained, but the idea of a heavenly canopy and angels was added above (conceived originally by Arnolfo di Cambio with the tomb of Cardinal de Braye at Orvieto), while the story of the life of the deceased was depicted on the tomb... It is only the Christian, who believes in the resurrection, that places the canopy and powers of heaven above his dead."


Cadaver monuments are prevalent throughout Italian churches. The famous Andrea Bregno sculpted a few of them, including those of a Cardinal Alano in San Prassede, Ludovico Cardinal d'Albert at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and Bishop John De Coca at the Santa Maria sopra Minervamarker, a basilican church in Rome, Italy.

Three other monuments are those of Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta (Matthew of Acquaspa) at the Santa Maria in Aracoelimarker, the tomb of Bishop Gonsalvi (1298) and that of Cardinal Gonsalvo (1299) (both located at the Basillica of Santa Maria Maggoiremarker), all sculpted by Giovanni de Cosma,, the youngest of the Cosmati family lineage.

Saint Peter's Basillica contains yet another monument, the tomb of Pope Innocent III. It was scuplted by Giovanni Pisano.


France also has a history of cadaver tombs, though not as extensive as that of England or Italy. Queen Catherine de Medici had her husband Henry II buried in a cadaver tomb.


Germany is known to contain a few cadaver monuments. There is evidence to suggest, when looking through various German effigy images, that cadaver monuments may have served a different purpose and were a slightly different kind of structure than the those of the churches in England and Italy. A cemetery effigy for a Peter Louis Ravené in Berlin, Germany, is similar to those monuments described herein, although different in location and in some ways, style. Historically, poorer or less important individuals would be entombed outside the church, rather than inside, which was reserved for Saints, Popes, rich nobles, and anyone else who could afford it or who was of great social importance.

Another German cadaver monument is, rather late historically, of Johann von der Leiter of Bayern, Germany.

References and further reading

  1. Images of this monument available at:
  2. "Guide to Rome." Online at:
  3. Available Online:
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