Translated from the original Latin, Memento Mori means “remember that you will die.” This phrase once influenced art, architecture, philosophy, literature and more. Reminders of our mortality were literally carved in marble. As we began to be distanced from death in a number of ways by the 20th century, memento mori fell out of fashion.
The idea of remembering our morality can be traced back to at least the time of Socrates. In Plato’s Phaedo, he recounts the death of Socrates, and declares that practicing philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” The placement of death at the centre of life carried into the early Christian period as well, when memento mori as a phrase started to be used. Originally a medieval Christian phrase, memento mori reflected the theory and practice of reflecting on the inevitability of death, and how the knowledge of our ultimate fate should influence how we live our lives.
In its original context, this ideology encouraged people to renounce or devalue worldly goods. As a Christian idea, memento mori also held religious significance, reminding Christians to turn away from vanity and obsession with the physical self, and focus on the immortal soul and the afterlife. With this history in mind, here are 5 different ways that the concept of memento mori has been used.
5 Types of Memento Mori
Because of this concept’s religious significance, many early examples of memento mori objects are found in Christian art. Because of the early Christian emphasis on the afterlife, and the fleeting nature of our lives on Earth, paintings depicting skulls; the dead and dying; funeral processions; the afterlife, and the Grim Reaper are very common. Indeed, there are many depictions of the living and dead together as well. Sculptures of similar images are also easily found. A typical form of memento mori in art is a still life form of painting called vanitas, or “vanity”. These paintings, the like one featured above, include symbols of mortality, such as skulls, flowers losing their petals and writing utensils.
Today, death has seen a resurgence in art and media. Death has recently been animated by Pixar, interpreted by Noah Scalin, and beautifully illustrated in the works of Landis Blair, to name a few. Even the New Yorker’s cartoons feature death on a regular basis.
Another common type of memento mori is found in architecture. In particular, funeral architecture, such as memorials, crypts, and tombs. In architecture of this kind, images of skulls, the reaper, heaven, and hell are prevalent. It is common to find stone carvings of these figures and scenes inlaid on tombstones, or on the external and internal surfaces of tombs themselves.
A very significant example of memento mori architecture is the transi, or cadaver tomb. These tombs are a form of tomb effigy, featuring an elaborate carving of a reclined figure. Unlike typical tomb effigies, the figures in transi are decomposing corpses. Transi were especially common during the Middle Ages.
A trend that was popularized in Victorian-era Europe was the crafting and wearing of memento mori, or mourning, jewellery. These pieces of jewellery would feature similar imagery as memento mori art and architecture, such as skulls. However, memento mori jewellery would also frequently be crafted from human remains, such as bone or hair. The remains were typically taken from the body of a deceased love one, hence the alternate title of “mourning jewellery.” These pieces were both reminders of mortality, but also reminders and keepsakes of deceased loved ones.
In the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods of British history, another memento mori form emerged with great popularity. A number of authors published works that were part of something called the Cult of Melancholia. The pieces that comprised this collection focused on matters of mortality, death, and dying. Two especially famous pieces of writing from this time are Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Buriall, and Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying. In the Victorian era, literary elegies, or poetic laments for the dead, were also popular forms of memento mori writing.
Today writing on death takes many forms. There are countless self-help books for those dealing with grief. There are memoirs from cancer survivors (and those who did not survive). There are books about near-death experiences, books about death and art, and stories from inside the death profession. The list seems to only be getting longer these days (thankfully)!
Those of you who attended the Death Salon in Philly may have caught the haunting performance of the Divine Hand Ensemble. This group was a callback to a genre of music once supposedly performed inside cemeteries. The TalkDeath team has had a hard time finding evidence that cemetery music was ever played, beyond a very contested “history” of funerary violin playing. Yet funerary music has historically been an important feature within many indigenous ceremonies, Vietnamese ceremonies, and shamanic cultures, to name but a few.
In the 20th century, Jazz funerals in New Orleans became fashionable. A blend of European, African and American practices, jazz funerals are a funerary tradition that blends music and death. Commonplace in the mid-20th century, they still do happen today.
A great example of memento mori in contemporary music is the genre of metal. Scholar, Christopher Patridge, has written an entire book on the connection between metal and death. He argues that metal’s power lies in its ability to create aﬀective spaces of mortality in a society that has largely denied death. Metal exposes the listener to mortality by pushing the limits of acceptable use because as he says, “the articulation of death and decay in popular music is rooted in transgression.”
This all makes a lot of sense when we look at the imagery used by metal bands, which can include skeletons, the grim reaper, imaginary scenes from hell, and real scenes of violence. Even though this imagery seems bleak, music can be a conduit for healthy confrontations with mortality.