My husband and I were driving home from Philadelphia the other night, when we realized the oddly shaped car we’d been following was a hearse. Oh right, I thought. Death.
The hearse was a real life memento mori, which is Latin for “remember to die.”
The phrase apparently dates back to ancient Roman times. As legend has it, when a general returned from winning a battle, he would be given a celebratory parade, a “Triumph.” Faced with cheering crowds and the great satisfaction of victory, the general would have a slave ride behind him in his chariot, whose sole task was to whisper in his ear a memento mori, a warning that death would come for him someday. Why? This helped the general stay humble and avoid the kind of overconfidence that would make him vulnerable.
General, come back! I have to tell you something!
Image via pixabay/elukac
Despite how ancient I sometimes feel (or how ancient my kids seem to think I am), I was not alive in the days of Roman generals and chariot parades. Instead, my first encounter with the term “memento mori” was in a college art history class. We explored the theme as it was expressed in paintings, sculptures and mosaics, throughout history and into modern times. Sometimes, the memento mori features blatantly, e.g. a skull, front and center; other times, the image might be a more subtle reminder of death–a sputtering candle or an emptying hourglass.
Either way, the message remains the same: where life goes, so follows death.
Inscription, translated: Everything passes with death,
death is the ultimate limit of all things.
Vanitas Barthel (Bartholomäus) Bruyn
(*Vanitas art is a sub-category of the memento mori genre)
published before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.
There are still other forms of the memento mori. The Victorians, for one, were experts in incorporating death into daily life. Ironically, as the middle class grew and lifespans lengthened (relatively speaking), premature death was increasingly seen as tragic. Queen Victoria herself openly and prolongedly grieved over her husband Albert’s passing at age forty-two, and the practice of deep mourning spread to her subjects and beyond. People wore black mourning clothing for years after a loved one’s passing, kept locks of hair encased in mourning jewelry, and even had photographs taken with the recently deceased. Death was a powerful presence in Victorian life and, ironically, it helped keep people’s connections to the deceased very much alive.
Mourning brooches containing the hair of deceased relatives.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons
Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
In this respect, Victorian mourning reminds me of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”). Indigenous Mexicans believe the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st and remain so into November 2nd, allowing the return of deceased loved ones. During this time, the living honor and celebrate those who have died, decorating altars in their homes with gifts for the dead: sugar skulls, candles, flowers, fruits, etc. The celebration closes with a gathering in cemeteries, where people tend to the graves of loved ones and share stories of their lives. This not only preserves bonds to the deceased, but also among the living.
Image via pixabay/pexels
So, are all these reminders of death creepy? I don’t think so. Granted, I’m a little Morticia Adams-y by nature, but death doesn’t really scare me. Well…okay, some parts of it do. I find open caskets and viewings to be deeply disturbing. I don’t want to remember someone in death; I want to remember their life and all they’ve meant to me.
On the contrary, I find graveyards to be fascinating places. I’ve been comfortable in them since childhood, maybe because my younger sister and I sometimes played in one. Our mom did the bookkeeping for a church preschool for a time, so we kids would roam the cemetery, reading epitaphs, expressing sadness over those who had died too young, standing in awe over the really old stones. Yet, neither of us were troubled by thoughts of death. Though faced with concrete evidence of it, we thought instead about life–those individuals’ lives, to be exact. We wondered about how they had lived, what their interests and daily lives were like, who they had loved.
Image via pixabay/MikeBird
As for the memento mori that sometimes pop up in our lives, I say be not afraid. A certain amount of comfort with death can aid us in our grieving, it can help us retain our connection to those we have lost. I’d recommend viewing memento mori the way the ancient Romans did–as reminders that we are all mortal. Our time is limited, so how do we want to spend it? How do we want to explore our interests, conduct our daily lives? Who do we love and how do we show them?
Image via Unsplash/Bistrian Iosip
Memento mori. Death as inspiration to live and live well.