What are Memento Mori?

Flower, Skull and Hourglass
"Still-life with a Skull" by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671. Photo courtesy of Austriacus (public domain)


The phrase memento mori (pl.) refers to any reminder or warning intended to prompt human beings to remember the inevitability of death and their own mortality.

Generally symbolic in nature, memento mori appear in paintings, sculptures and other works of art, but also appear in song lyrics and musical compositions, architectural details, photographs, religious rites, jewelry and timepieces, poems and literary writings, and, naturally, on tombs, headstones and gravemarkers in cemeteries.

The photo shown above is a superb example of memento mori. Painted by artist Philippe de Champaigne in 1671 and titled "Still-life with a Skull," the work depicts the reality of the human condition by reducing it to three elements (left to right): Life, Death, and the inexorable march of Time.

While skulls often feature prominently in memento mori, other symbols also serve to remind us of the inevitability of death, such as:
• skeletons
• a decaying/decayed human corpse
• human bones
• sand running through an hourglass
• trees dropping leaves or flowers losing petals
• coffins, caskets, urns and even boxes
• the Grim Reaper and his scythe

This Pinterest page offers numerous photos of memento mori. Much of the imagery and symbolism associated with Mexico's Day of the Dead also constitute memento mori.

Roughly translated, the Latin phrase memento mori means, "Remember that you must die." According to popular legend, a servant uttered these words to a military leader as the latter celebrated a victory during a public parade in ancient Rome, reminding the general that, despite his success in battle, he too will ultimately fall.

While this story is likely apocryphal, the first recorded use of memento mori in the sense noted above occurred in the late 1500s. Among these initial usages, William Shakespeare used the phrase in his 1598 play Henry IV, Part 1 (Act III, Scene III) when Falstaff utters: "I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a Death's-head or a memento mori: I never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple; for there he is in his robes, burning, burning."

Photo: "Still-life with a Skull" by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671.

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"memento mori." Oxford University Press. Retrieved June 26, 2014. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/memento-mori

"memento mori (n.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 26, 2014. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=memento+mori

"King Henry IV, Part I." Shakespeare Online. Retrieved June 27, 2014. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/1kh4_3_3.html

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