What Is Memento Mori?

Posted: 08/03/2018

Here at Perfect Funeral Plans, we’ve previously discussed the invention of death mindfulness apps in the last year, such as WeCroak, where users are sent various reminders and quotes from famous poets and philosophers throughout the day to remind them of their own mortality, that they too will die one day. However, memento mori to an extent is really the purest, and oldest form of this type of death reminder that there is. Today, we take a look at what exactly memento mori is and the history behind it.

What is memento mori?

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Examples of memento mori can be found in art, architecture, literature and even its influence can be seen in films or on TV. Source: Amazon

The phrase is Latin and can be translated as meaning ‘remember you must die’, and it garnered significant influence in art, philosophy, literature and more. Memento comes from the word memini which mean ‘to remember, to bear in mind’ whilst mori is from the Latin ‘mori’ meaning ‘to die’. Most commonly, memento mori can take the form of objects or art and are meant to serve as a reminder of one’s mortality. Memento mori is also meant to symbolise the fact that death is something that unites us all, regardless of other factors such as social status, it is also suppose to be a reminder of the transient nature of life. In summary, memento mori can reflect a practice (reflecting on one’s eventual death) as well as a medieval Latin theory rooted in Christian principles and an object.

Whilst these days we seemingly try to avoid remind ourselves of death in whatever way we can, despite its inevitability, this hasn’t always been the case. For those living in antiquity, and pretty much till the beginning of the 20th century, death was something to be celebrated, not feared. Death and by extension, memento mori was thought to be a motivator in order to live a more meaningful, prosperous and virtuous existence.

When did memento mori originate?

The exact origins of memento remain contested, partly due to the fact that the idea of remembering one’s mortality is attributed to different people. For example, some trace back the notion of the mindfulness of death to the Greek philosopher, Socrates or Plato.

Others believe that memento mori originated from a tradition dating back from the ancient Romans.

This was when a servant would be given the task of having to stand behind a Roman general after he had won a particularly spectacular victory and the servant (slave) would have to be behind him for the entirety of this victory parade. The general would parade his army across the city (which was something otherwise a bit of a taboo thing to do in Republican Rome) displaying the goods and servants he had ended up accumulating by winning.

During this parade, the Roman general would ride through the city on a chariot, wearing laurel leaves on his head and made into a crown and all those in the city would cheer him on to congratulate him on his victory.

Apparently (according to Tertullian) throughout this, the servant would whisper into the ear of the general to say ‘Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!’,  in order to remind him of his own mortality even in the event of glory.

Examples of memento mori

Graveyards

During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, memento mori was particularly commonplace and would often adorn tombstones and graveyards, where the words ‘Memento mori’ and ‘Hora fugit’  (meaning the hour flees) would be written across the tombstone. The graves would often be adorned with skulls, bones, and pictures of hourglasses too.

Architecture

An extremely common form of memento mori is found in architecture across the world, particularly in crypts or tombs. These tended to be made from either stone or marble and would be carved into figures or scenes depicting heaven, hell, skulls or the reaper. For example, transi (a cadaver tomb) in the Middle Ages would very often feature a very detailed and elaborate carving of a decomposing corpse.

Art

Many of the earliest examples of memento mori tend to be in the form of art. Due to the religious aspect of the Latin phrase, many of these pieces tend to be Christian art. These works would often depict skulls, the afterlife, the Grim Reaper, or even funeral processions. All of which was intended to encourage the viewer to remember the fleeting nature of their own lives. A very popular form of memento mori art was that of a still life painting called vanitas (or ‘vanity). This would usually depict various symbols depicting death in some shape or form, such as wilting flowers and skulls. Vanitas art was often used among Dutch Golden Age artists originating from the 16th and 17th centuries, with a passage from Ecclesiastes on the transience of life apparently the inspiration behind it.

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An example of memento mori art (specifically dance macabre) by Emmanuel Büchel called ‘Dance of Death’ painted in 1773.

There was also the prominence of a sub-genre of art that exemplifies memento mori that was quite popular during the Renaissance – Dance Macabre. This type of art did have its origins in the late medieval times but only gained popularity later on. Dance macabre art will usually reflect a skeleton either walking, dancing or even playing music. The notion behind it, as with all examples of memento mori was to act as a reminder of the universality of death.

However, that doesn’t mean that elements of memento mori are not present in any works of modern art. Take for example Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’ in 2007,

Literature

Memento mori because particularly popular in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras, with many works published as part of the Cult of Melancholia. Notably famous pieces from this collection (which focused on death and dying) include Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying as well as Sir Thomas Browne’s Hyritaphia, Urn Buriall.

Memento mori also became commonplace in the Victorian era, with poetic laments for the deceased gaining popularity during this time.