A memento mori (latin: remember that you must die) is a object or pictorial symbol associated with death. Such symbols include skulls, bones, coffins, urns, angel of death, upside-down torches, graves and ravens, cypresses, weeping willows, tuberoses, parsley, and many more.
The images of death are the true and proper mirror by which one must correct the deformities of sin and embellish the soul. – de Vauzelles
A good number of these associations can be traced back to antiquity. These emblems of mortality have long been used as items of adornment: Mary, Queen of Scots, owned a skull-shaped watch; Martin Luther had a gold ring with a death’s-head in enamel; even today skull motifs are used in al sorts of jewelry and bric-à-brac.
The idea that everything and everybody in this world were heading towards death produced and reflected both a complacency in the face of death and anxiety about the oblivion of death.
There was a custom reputed to be in use in Imperial Rome, of having victorious generals accompanied in their triumphal processions by a slave, who would constantly repeat the cant, ‘Remember thou art mortal’.
The idea of the omnipotence and omnipresence of death was reflected in the exhaustive repertoire of images assigned to the mors (in ancient Roman myth and literature, Mors is the personification of death equivalent to the Greek Thánatos). The argument for daily dying was a certain protection against being caught unprepared: “Death is an old enemy of human life; if you don’t want to be taken by surprise, beware and watch him from afar, as from a guardtower.”
Some Latin phrases are also associated with the underlying concept behind ‘memento mori’. For example, the following phrases were sometimes inscribed on clocks, in order to serve as a reminder of the brevity of life:
- vulnerant omnes, ultima necat, which means “they all [hours] wound, the last one kills”.
- ultima forsan, which means “perhaps the last [hour]”.
- tempus fugit, which means “time flies”.
Cadaver tombs or transi were a 15th-century practice among the wealthy, where the tomb of the deceased would have the effigy of a decaying corpse displayed on it. Later Protestant tombstones in the United States would often depict skeletons and skulls.
Another example of memento mori is provided by the chapels of bones, such as the Capela dos Ossos in Évora or the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. These are chapels where the walls are totally or partially covered by skulls and bones
The entrance to the Capela dos Ossos has the following sentence: “We bones, lying here bare, await yours.”
In the European devotional literature of the Renaissance, the Ars Moriendi, memento mori had moral value by reminding individuals of their mortality.
In the late 16th and through the 17th century, memento mori jewelry became popular. Items included mourning rings, pendants, lockets, and brooches. These pieces depicted tiny motifs of skulls, bones, and coffins, in addition to messages and names of the departed, picked out in precious metals and enamel.
The mourning rings would often have a small receptacle in the center for a locket of hair from the deceased. Hair has been collected from the dead since the beginning of times. Hair signified the vanity of this world; it reminded people of death; but they nevertheless embellished their hair with golden dust to forget about death. Some says that God decided to put hair on the human being’s head as a flag of death. When we are overwhelmed by an illness, sorrow or trouble (the above things are the fangs of death), we instinctively grab our hair and tear it out as if reminding ourselves about death.
Among the various artistic genres that illustrated memento mori, the Danse Macabre focuses on the universality and inevitability of death. In this genre, a grim reaper is often featured as a personification of death, and is depicted accompanying a large group of people, from all hosts of life, to their death. This was intended to serve as a memento mori which reminds people that no matter their station in life, death will eventually come for them.
During the same period there emerged the artistic genre known as vanitas, Latin for “emptiness” or “vanity”. Especially popular in Holland and then spreading to other European nations, vanitas paintings typically represented assemblages of numerous symbolic objects such as human skulls, guttering candles, wilting flowers, soap bubbles, butterflies, and hourglasses.
Today, the most famous association or revival of the medieval and Roman ‘memento mori’ is the Mexican festival Day of the Dead, where Mexicans create macabre ornaments and skull-shaped candles and bread made to look like bones in order to celebrate the life of those that have passed. Another manifestation of memento mori is found in the Mexican Calavera, a literary composition in verse form normally written in honour of a person who is still alive, but written as if that person were dead. These compositions have a comedic tone and are often offered from one friend to another during Day of the Dead.
In modern Western culture, death has become merchandised. Skulls can be found everywhere but they do not serve anymore as a reminder of things to come. Damien Hirst’s art is full of macabre symbols such as his exhibit of a hunk of meat slowly being eaten by flies, or his skull made of diamonds. But even here, there seems to be an inability to go beyond our culture of glamour and materialism – Hirst’s famous pickled shark is called, tellingly, ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’.
Goth and metal subculture fans are obsessed with demons and death. Skulls and corpses are the centre of their imagery, on their skins, on the covers of albums, in bands’ songs and band names: MegaDeath, Death Denied, Slayer, Dismember, Autopsy, Anatomy, … However, this fascination seems to express more an appetite for violence and a rebel attitude against established society than the real consideration for death and the brevity of life that was coined by the Stoics.