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What is a Memento Mori?

A memento mori is a powerful reminder of life's impermanence, often symbolized by skulls or hourglasses. It encourages us to live meaningfully, knowing our time is finite. This ancient concept can transform our perspective on life's priorities. How might embracing memento mori change the way you approach your daily life? Join us as we explore its profound impact.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Memento mori refers to a wide range of elements in art with the purpose of reminding the audience of their own eventual death. It may be the theme or an entire piece, or it may be a small element, such as a diminutive skull in the corner of a painting. In Latin, the phrase means "Remember you are mortal."

While these elements are sometimes thought to convey the message "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die," in European Christian art, in which they abounds, they are more often a reminder of the vanity of earthly glory and pleasure. For this reason, still life paintings were formerly known as Vanitas, as they customarily included a memento mori of some sort. Common figures used in such paintings include skulls, hourglasses, snuffed candles, flowers or fruit past their prime, and insects. They are often subtly and cleverly worked into an elaborate still life.

Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.
Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.

Anything related to the passage of time can be a memento mori, and many public clocks once included phrases such as Tempus fugit meaning "time flies," or used an automated figure of Death to strike the bell on the hour. Personal watches were also often adorned with images such as skulls. Other small memento moris were intended to be carried on one's person as a reminder of mortality. One such piece, on display in the Cloisters museum in New York City, is a medieval carving in the shape of a diminutive coffin that opens on a scene of Dives, or the rich man, in Hell.

Another popular genre for memento mori is funerary art. Many cemeteries feature headstones or memorial statues depicting skulls or skeletons. During the late medieval era in Europe, tombs were sometimes topped with an image of the deceased's decayed corpse, rather than his or her living body, as was common in earlier eras.

Memento mori appears in literature and music as well as in visual art. It is not as popular as it once was, but people can still find examples in the modern era, particularly in the literary and musical realms. The death clock, a computer toy that calculates the user's hour of death and counts down to it, hearkens back to earlier personal memento mori clocks and can easily be found online.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a memento mori?

A memento mori is an object, symbol, or practice that serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death. The term originates from Latin, meaning "remember you must die." This concept has been a significant part of philosophical, religious, and artistic traditions throughout history, encouraging mindfulness of mortality and the transient nature of life. It's often represented by skulls, hourglasses, or other symbols that emphasize the finite nature of human existence.

How did the concept of memento mori originate?

The concept of memento mori has ancient roots, with evidence of its themes found in Roman times. According to historical records, it was customary for a servant to whisper 'Memento mori' to a victorious Roman general during a triumphal procession, reminding him of his mortality despite his current glory. Over time, the phrase evolved into a broader philosophical and artistic motif, prevalent in medieval Christian thought and art, to remind individuals to live virtuously.

What is the purpose of a memento mori?

The primary purpose of a memento mori is to prompt reflection on the inevitability of death. It serves as a philosophical tool to foster an appreciation for the present moment and to encourage living a life of meaning and purpose. By acknowledging death, individuals may find motivation to prioritize significant relationships, ethical behavior, and the pursuit of personal and spiritual growth, knowing that life is temporary and precious.

Can you give examples of memento mori in art and culture?

Memento mori has been a recurring theme in art and culture across various periods. In the visual arts, it appears in still-life paintings known as 'vanitas,' filled with symbols of death and decay, such as skulls, wilting flowers, and extinguished candles. Literature and poetry often explore memento mori themes, contemplating the transient nature of life. Contemporary culture continues this tradition through various mediums, including film, music, and fashion, where the symbolism prompts audiences to consider their mortality.

Is memento mori connected to any specific religions or philosophies?

Memento mori is intertwined with multiple religions and philosophies. In Christianity, it is a reminder of the importance of humility and the need to focus on the eternal life rather than earthly pleasures. Buddhism incorporates similar themes with its teachings on impermanence. Stoicism, a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and views on the natural world, also embraces the concept, encouraging followers to use the awareness of death as a means to value life and live virtuously.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon89245

I've always thought that a memento mori as a positive thing. A reminder that life is not unlimited so you must live the days you have to the fullest. After I recovered from breast cancer I had memento mori tattooed on the back of my neck and my family was horrified, but I understand the phrase to mean "eat, drink and be merry..."

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    • Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.
      By: Les Cunliffe
      Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.