Memento Mori: Remember That You Too Will Die
A timeless and small reminder of the beautiful transience of human life.
You are dust and to dust you shall return.
It’s easy to forget our future deaths when we live surrounded by the distractions and trivia that are popularly called life. But reflection on our own finite natures not only results in a powerful and inspiring idea, it’s also the enlightened acceptance of that which makes our time on earth valuable, and putting it mildly, spectacular.
Legend has it that during the time of ancient Rome, a general returned home after having won a great battle. Parading around the whole city in celebration of his triumph, he received congratulations and compliments from the crowds. For a moment, the general felt a great deal of pride and an intense arrogance. At that moment, a character who would perhaps have gone otherwise unremembered, a slave, said something so profoundly obvious and important that it remains in Western culture even to this day. In a low voice, so that only his master could hear him, he said: Memento mori. “Remember that you too will die,” Respice post te. Hominem te memento. “Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you’re [only] a man.”
The aesthetic that emerged from this legend and its ontological implications deeply touched Western culture and flourished particularly since the 17th century, during an era of deep religiosity. Memento mori ended up becoming an artistic genre, moved into poems, paintings, onto tombs, songs, jewelry, books, and sculpture. It decorated them with skulls and skeletons, clocks, candles on the point of extinction, and in flowers and fruits, in the manner which we know today as “still life.”
Christianity embraced the Memento mori by adopting objects, symbols and expressions that spoke of the importance of the spiritual world above the earthly world, and for generating convenient correlations with concepts like those of the Last Judgment and the Christian heaven.
Universal and even archetypal nature, a reminder of death exists across many cultures, as though it’s always been there. The very imagination is populated by Memento mori. It may be enough to remember Hamlet speaking with Yorick’s skull, or the countless Renaissance and Baroque paintings adorned with skulls. And let us recall the obsession in Victorian England for death in postmortem photography and jewelry made from dead peoples’ hair.
In the Americas, Memento mori culture exists in very particular ways. Death is depicted in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivities when skeletons that behave (celebrate, eat, drink, dress) as do the living. But Islamic, Buddhist and Samurai aesthetics each have their own ways of representing the presence of death in our lives, too.
Memento mori is but two powerful words which still echo in our psyches as a spontaneous, resplendent reminder of something that may seem obvious. The concept, perhaps overtly morbid to our own sensibilities, is not necessarily bleak. It could be seen as an invitation to take advantage of the time we have on this earth (in the manner of Carpe diem) and to seek a distinction amongst all the vanities of the world. But Memento mori is also a memory of life. Because we’ll all die, we needn’t ever forget death, but for now, we’re still here…
A beautiful collection of Memento mori art:
1, 9, 10, 11) Laura Makabresku
Public Domain: 2) Still-Life with a Skull (1671) by Philippe de Champagne; 3) Memento mori, mosaic from Pompeii (1585), unknown artist; 4) Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (1485) by Hans Memling; 5) Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols (1651) by David Bailly; 6) Catrina (1910) by José Guadalupe Posadas; 7) Hamlet – The Shakespeare Quartos Archive; 8) A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635) by George Wither.
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