Memento Mori: Art to Help You Meditate on Death and Become a Better Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 29, 2012 · 71 comments

in A Man's Life

To This Favour by William Michael Harnett, 1879

In case you’ve forgotten, Halloween is this Wednesday. With all the ghosts and goblins decorating homes these days, I figured it’s a great time to talk about one of my favorite genres of art: memento mori.

Memento mori is Latin for “Remember death.” The phrase is believed to originate from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would be tasked with standing behind a victorious general as he paraded though town. As the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in the general’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” = “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”

Memento mori. Remember that you will die.

Us moderns don’t like to think too much about death. It’s a bit too depressing and morbid for our think-positive sensibilities. Our culture is devoted to perpetuating the lie that you can stay young forever and your life will go on and on.

But for men living in antiquity all the way up until the beginning of the 20th century, rather than being a downer, death was seen as a motivator to live a good, meaningful, and virtuous life. To help men remember death, artists created paintings, sculptures, and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death. Churches would display memento mori art to compel viewers to meditate on death, reflect on their lives, and re-dedicate themselves to preparing to meet God. Devout Christians would often ask that their tomb or grave marker have some sort of skeleton motif on it to remind their visiting family members to get right with God before they too bit the dust.

Below, I’ve put together a collection of famous memento mori artwork. Not only would these paintings of skulls and skeletons look badass hanging in your home, they can also help remind you that you’re dying daily, encourage you to quit wasting your life away on stupid stuff, and motivate you to start living the life you want NOW.

Self Portrait by Thomas Smith, 1680

Memento mori woodcut by Alexander Mair, 1605

In ictu oculi by Juan de Valdés Leal, 1672

Saint Jerome by Albrecht Dürer, 1521

Morieris by Hans Memling, 1483

Unnamed illustration by Mary S. Gove, 1842

Memento Mori by Jan Saenredam, late 16th century

Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull by Frans Hals, 1615

sceleti et musculorum corporis humani by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, 1749. Albinus was an anatomist who would often depict human skeletons in traditional memento mori motifs.

Young Man Holding a Skull by Frans Hals, 1626.

Unnamed illustration by Andreas Vesalius, 1543. Vesalius is considered the founder of modern anatomy and published the first comprehensive anatomy book of the modern era: “De humani corporis fabrica.” This illustration is an obvious play on memento mori motifs. It’s actually kind of meta. Death mediating on death.

Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

A sub-genre of memento mori art is Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death. This genre of art has its origins in late medieval times but became popular during the Renaissance.  Dance of Death paintings typically portray a skeleton (signifying Death or the Grim Reaper) walking, dancing, or playing music. To convey the universality of death, people from all walks of life — kings, popes, peasants, and children — are invited by jovial skeletons to follow them in a dance to the grave. Dance of Death art (and it also took the form of plays and poems), grew out of the grim horrors of the 14th century: famine, the Hundred Years War, and, most of all, the Black Death. The latter starkly demonstrated the way in which death united all, felling the population without the faintest regard for age or rank.

Some Dance of Death paintings are rather morbid, graphic, and downright creepy. Whether or not it gives you the heebee jeebees, there’s no denying its powerful reminder that we’ll all have to pay the fiddler once our mortal hoedown is through.

Dance of Death by Emmanuel Büchel, 1773

Death as a cutthroat by Alfred Rethel, 1851. Rethel was inspired by an account of how an outbreak of cholera ravaged a masquerade during the Carnival of Paris in 1832.

Dance of Death. Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523-1526. This woodcut is part of a series Holbein did on the Dance of Death theme.

Unnamed illustration by unknown author, 1488. This image (and the 3 below) comes from a series of late 15th century woodcuts based on the Dance of Death theme. The book that contained these woodcut images was entitled Heidelberger Totentanz. Scholars believe it was the first collection of art dedicated solely to  the Dance of Death theme.

This appears to be a king accompanied by a trombone-playing skeleton.

Sadly, as people in antiquity knew all too well, even children sometimes can’t escape the dance with death.

Life is often a game of chance. Fortunes come and fortunes go. But we all have to cash out and head to the big casino in the sky.

Heidelberger Bilderkatechismus, 1455. This is possibly one of the earliest depictions of the Dance of Death. That king kind of looks happy to be hanging out with Death. But I guess if the Grim Reaper had to come, at least he came playing the drums.

The 13th century legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead was a popular theme of murals and frescoes. In the legend, three gentlemen or kings meet the cadavers of their ancestors, who warn them: “Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis” (What we were, you are; what we are, you will be!).

Vanitas Vanitatum Omnia Vanitas

Still Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671. The three essentials of existence: life, death, and time.

Another sub-genre of memento mori art is called vanitas.  This artistic motif was particularly popular among Dutch Golden Age artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. The famous passage from chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes on the fleeting and impermanent nature of our mortal life is cited as the inspiration for this morbid art.

2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

In vanitas art, the certainty of death and our mortality are still the main themes, but there’s an added emphasis on the fleetingness and insignificance of earthly glory and pleasures. Common symbols in vanitas art include the skull (representing the certainty of death); bubbles (representing the brevity and fragility of life and earthly glory); smoke, hourglasses, and watches (every minute that passes brings you closer to death); rotting fruit and flowers (representing the fragility and decay of earthly things); musical instruments and music sheets (representing the ephemeral nature of life); torn or loose books (representing earthly knowledge); and dice and playing cards (representing the role that chance and fortune play in life).

The purpose of vanitas art is moral instruction. It’s to remind the viewer that life is precious, so they better not waste it on frivolous and meaningless things.

Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols by David Bailly, 1651. Notice the bubbles.

Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Gheyn the Elder, 1603. Notice all the vanitas symbols: skull, bubble, smoke, and flower. Money seems to be another symbol in this painting. It likely represents the foolishness of “laying up your treasures where moth and dust doth corrupt.”

Vanitas Still Life by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 17th century

Vanitas Still Life by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 17th century.

Vanitas Quiet Life by Pieter Claesz, early 17th century. Which vanitas symbols can you see?

Vanitas Still Life by Simon Renard de Saint-André, middle of the 17th century.

Still Life, An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Harmen Steenwijck, 1640.

Vanitas Still Life by Simon Renard de Saint-André, middle of the 17th century. Notice the hourglass, pair of dice, and sheet of music.

Memento mori themes were common in mediums beyond paintings as well, such as this 16th/17th century ivory pendant: Monk and Death. I like this one, because Kate often says to me, “Whoa, you have a skeleton under there.” Whoa indeed.

I know death isn’t the most pleasant thing to think about, but today I challenge you to pick out one of the memento moris above and really study it. Think about the symbols and what they mean. As you do so, ask yourself: Am I dedicating my life primarily to activities and things that will simply fade away like smoke and bubbles? Or I am making the most of my life by creating a legacy that will live beyond the grave?

Memento mori, gentlemen.


{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Perry Hua October 29, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Death is inevitable but it is because of death that makes life worth living. I know it’s hard to ponder about it sometimes knowing that you will one day cease to exist but the sooner you embrace the fact that you are going to die one day the sooner you can live life the way you want.

No one asked for birth and no one asked for death but it is the present moment that’s most valuable. Death gives life meaning and purpose.

2 JamesArmstrong October 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Very deep.

3 Nathan October 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Beautiful artwork. As a senior in high school interested in English, I recently read Joyce’s “The Dead” which has sparked frequent contemplation about death as a means of living more fully, although the phrase and “memento mori” is new to me. As a senior in high school interested in English, I also have to point out that the Hamlet engraving is depicting his monologue about “poor Yorick”, not the “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

4 Matias October 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm

I’m just writing to say that this is probably the best website I’ve ever seen.

I get surprised all the time with the contents as they are so related to my values and current goals. Amazing!

Thanks and greetings from Argentina.

5 Garrett L. October 29, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Memento mori as well Brett! Death is a subject I am scared to think of as a young man. I think once I’m older death will be an easier subject to think of, and even one day, accept. But that is a lesson I believe cannot be taught and must be learned

6 Alex O. October 29, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I have had that phrase tattooed across my collar bone for years now. It is a great daily reminder, love this article!

7 Matthew October 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I was in a type of Men’s household at Franciscan University, it was called Servants of the Savior. A household was like a fraternity, but more prayer and more focus on being a better man. Our slogan was Momento Mori, so this is an article that is very near and dear to all of our hearts.
Remember Your Death Gentlemen.

8 Jimmy October 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I am saddened that my favorite art piece Alfred Rethel’s Death is a Friend was not displayed. It adds an entirely different perspective on death.

9 Bobby G. October 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm

As I get older (almost 50) death seems to lose its scariness. It is not “acceptence”, so much, as it is familiarity. Death being a constant companion for this many years becomes less frightening.

Another great post, Brett and Kate.

10 Mark October 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Any links for Memento Mori posters, etc? I’d love to have a couple of these.

11 Nicholas October 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Renaissance “Death” woodcuts are some of my favorite artwork. I have “Der Ritter” from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death tattooed on my side, and plans have two or three others from the series wrapping my entire lower torso, with “The Escutcheon of Death” from the series as a chest piece.

12 Ben October 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm

The illustration from the Heidelberger Bilderkatechismus, 1455 actually depicts the Pope, if I’m not mistaken. Not sure if it matters (at all).

13 Vince October 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm

“Memento mori” used to be, and perhaps still is the greeting of the Carthusian monks. All these pictures remind me of the fantastic movie “The Seventh Seal.” Great post, as always.

14 Oscar October 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Actually im a little suprised to read about this stuff here. Knew mostly of the paintings cause i read books about this topic in the “pre-Internet” times but I appreciate the whole article and the sharing of it. – Im sure many men will too. (in the long run)

Death in our modern media-molded consumerism world is not real a topic, and if, its always the death of others.

15 Shaun S October 29, 2012 at 9:52 pm

The memento mori motif makes such a great tattoo. I plan to get one on my calf eventually… or should I put it on my forearm so I see it more often and thus remember my mortality? Hmm….

16 LPB October 29, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Nice article. And since it’s nearly the 31st, I’ll mention my favorite New Orleans tombstone inscription:
“Here every night except Halloween.”

17 J.Delancy October 30, 2012 at 12:13 am

I come to this place of my ancestors, and I remember that like these blossoms, we are all dying.
Katsumoto, The Last Samurai

It is not that our life is so short, it is that we waste so much of them.
Seneca

18 Dave12b October 30, 2012 at 1:00 am

Brett,
Thank you for another great article. Please check out Albrecht Durer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil.

19 AJ October 30, 2012 at 1:11 am

“O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?”
-1 Cor 15:55-56

20 Rahul October 30, 2012 at 3:23 am

Man, you guys continue to surprise me and beat expectations. Loved it. Thanks

21 Daniel October 30, 2012 at 4:52 am

This reminds me of the Hagakure / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagakure /
where the author exposes the view that the way of the samurai is the way of death. One should be ready to die every day with no regrets.

22 Roland October 30, 2012 at 5:01 am

Thoroughly enjoyed this article, learnt some new things about art and thought provoking. Thank you!

23 Stig B October 30, 2012 at 5:41 am

Loved it. Memento Mori is a great message, and the original intention of reminding the precipient to be humble and not bask in his own glory are something worth pondering upon.

“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” Great question. I’m prone to say the profit is the labour itself.

24 KambizAmini October 30, 2012 at 6:09 am

What a great article! Thanks! The paintings are just great, my favorit is of course the vanitas that i even have put on my wall.

I have been very interested in this question for a while. I find that meditating upon the death really helps me to focus on important things in life and have a perspective on life as well on everything i do.

It is interesting to see have people back in time had a realistisk perspective on death while we today are awoiding this issue and believing that we are here for ever, example: Being 50-years-old is the new 25.

There are many articles on A.O.M that touches the issue of death and i find them all interesting and enlightening.

25 madmax October 30, 2012 at 6:14 am

an impressive article, thank you

26 Jonny Gibaud October 30, 2012 at 6:39 am

An excellent piece of writing.

I live by seven principles, and I was just moved to possibly replace one of them with “Memento Mori”.

27 RR October 30, 2012 at 7:13 am

The commenter Ben above is correct. The depiction shows a Pope wearing a tiara. You’ll also note he is wearing a mantle and stole.

28 Johnny the Freemason October 30, 2012 at 7:17 am

The Memento Mori is the centerpiece of the York Rite Freemasonry/Order of the Temple’s Chamber of Reflection. It’s a moving and powerful sentiment for all that have been given the opportunity with being part of that Order, and it leaves a lasting impression.

29 JC October 30, 2012 at 7:19 am

Great article, a lot of these pieces were new to me. There is also the phenomenon of ossuaries, which created a Moment Mori on a grand scale. It is hard to imagine a culture where the black death had killed so many people that it seemed appropriate to decorate whole churches with bones.

There is an excellent book on the subject called ‘Empire of Death’ that I would highly recommend. I’m not a particularly morbid person but found the book fascinating.

30 JonathanL October 30, 2012 at 7:46 am

Death is something we all must face. I remember reading about the life cycle as a junior high student and reading about how acceptance of death was natural, and it freaked me out. I had a hard time with it during my teenage years and I mostly just tried not to think about it. After I became a father and I had a daily reminder of the passage of time, I had to face it down, and I’m finally at peace with it. Hopefully I’ve got a good 40-50 years left, but any way you slice it, I understand and appreciate death. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean I can face it.

31 Sean Wilson October 30, 2012 at 8:10 am

The king with the three crowns in the image where death is playing drums is a pope. I have to agree that this is one of the best websites ever. thanks

32 Daniel Crandall October 30, 2012 at 8:28 am

This is very interesting artwork. I’m not convinced, however, that sitting with these images will have the affect you desire, to whit “encourage you to quit wasting your life away on stupid stuff, and motivate you to start living the life you want NOW.” I don’t believe that that will truly happen until one actually experiences being with the dying when they die; being at the bedside when that final breath is released and a loved one shuffles off his or her mortal coil and goes to that great reward. Speaking from personal experience, I might have known I’d die someday, but I never really believed it until I sat at the bedside as my fiance took an arduous journey toward and into death. All these images pale in comparison to sitting in a hospital room hearing the death rattle within the lungs of the one you love as she struggles for those few final breaths.

The men who created this artwork had much more personal experience of that than we moderns. We’ve cut ourselves off from death. Almost no one dies at home anymore. Instead most folks, if they don’t pass away in a hospital, spend those final days in hospice. Families, more often than not grow apart and our elderly spend their last days in an “Assisted Living Facility”. Headstones have been removed from graveyards because it’s inconvenient to mow around all those small monoliths to the memory of our beloved dead.

My comment is not meant to condemn or judge anyone. A phrase I heard somewhere, and which I bring up when death is the topic of conversation, is everyone knows they are going to die, but no one really believes it. I was one of those folks. Now I know and truly believe the day will come when I’ll be hearing that death rattle in my own lungs. And when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I pray my fiance, my father, and all those I’ve known who have died will be there to greet me. And that I will pass on knowing I’ve lived well and done well as judged by them and by my fellow Man whom I leave behind.

33 Artem1350 October 30, 2012 at 9:12 am

Good stuff

34 marc October 30, 2012 at 9:46 am

In the small catalan village of Verges, on Good Saturday, six men and boys dress up as skeletons and dance around the village. It’s a tradition that comes from the middle ages. You can see a video of this memento mori here.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruSV1swIUeo

35 Benjamin Atkinson October 30, 2012 at 10:33 am

Great reminder!

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book ‘The Denial of Death’ (6 months after his own death).

He suggests that modern societal ills stem from the mechanisms we erect to support the ‘vital lie’. By denying death we create systems of evil. I think Becker maps the corrupt nature of man in exquisite detail. It’s a fascinating read.

http://www.amazon.com/Denial-Death-Ernest-Becker/dp/0684832402

Ben

36 Ian October 30, 2012 at 11:05 am

The Transi statue of Rene de Chalon in St. Etiene is probably the most spectacular sculpture I have seen of this genre. It is both horrifying and spellbinding to behold.

http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.com/2008/09/transi-de-ren-de-chalon-ligier-richier.html

37 Bert October 30, 2012 at 11:55 am

Great post! When I was 19 I got a grim reaper tattooed on my arm. At the time I just thought it was kinda cool, didn’t really have any other reason for getting it. I’m now a youth minister and that tattoo is the one the kids ask about the most. My reply as to why I have it: We are all going to die, we should act accordingly.

38 Joel October 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Memento Mori my tattoo:
http://bit.ly/SeIOBz

Make big things happen friends, for we all will die. How do you want to be remembered?

39 Steve October 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Wonderful Brett and Kate. How do you keep doing it?! Happy Halloween and remember it is only the kick off to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as Mardi Gras (Fat Tues.) is to Lent.

40 Matt October 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Sometimes I will write short messages or draw on my hand to give myself constant reminders. The eager and enthusiastic part of me wants to get a skull tattooed on the back of my hand. Hmm…maybe not. Speaks to the impact of the article, though. Excellent post.

41 Rob October 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm

This reminds me of an epitaph I found on a very old gravestone in an abandoned graveyard on my parents property when I was growing up:

“Remember, friends, as you walk by,
as you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be,
prepare for death, and follow me.”

I’ve always like that…

42 Grouchybastid October 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Add me to the list of memento mori tattoos. The Grim Reaper, holding a bloody scythe and an hourglass, stares at me from my forearm every day. Good stuff.

43 Louis October 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm

When a 50-year-old had lived a long life and so many children died in infancy, a lot of people must have grappled with death and what it meant. I’d be the last to say centuries of expanding life expectancies is a bad thing but it’s too easy to forget we still have an expiration date stamped somewhere. Anything that makes you remember that and reflect on it is still a great idea.

44 Jason October 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm

The best part of this artwork is the way symbols can be so much more timeless and meaningful than just words.

45 Trevor October 31, 2012 at 2:18 am

All very stoic. Consider these paintings while reading Aurelius’s Meditations, and your mind will be blown.

46 Bryce October 31, 2012 at 9:18 am

I wonder if part of the reason that so many young people are taking longer to meet many milestones of “growing up” such as career, marriage, and family is that there isn’t as much as a sense of urgency as there once was, because death is no longer as “in-your-face” as it once was. In other words, today’s 20-somethings believe, and somewhat rightly so, that they have all the time in the world ahead of them (I know I did) so it’s OK to waste it. Whereas a 20-something of even 50 years ago had much more exposure to death than today’s typically do (I heard my parents and many friends of my parents talk about grade school classmates dying of polio and high school classmates being drafted and killed in combat in Korea and Vietnam) and thus had a greater sense that life is too short to waste. Thoughts?

47 MattW October 31, 2012 at 10:14 am

Great post.
I just read a poem with my class on these themes (Sor Juana’s “A su retrato”). I think the students thought I was crazy to focus on the theme, but hey, if even one of them remembers this at some point, it will be worth it.

48 Nicholas October 31, 2012 at 8:17 pm

You may want to include “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein:

http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/Images/Ambassadors/Ambassadors.jpg

49 Brian C. October 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for posting this!

A few years ago I was talking with a man and sharing my busy schedule, big goals, and lofty dreams with him and he responded with, “Why are you working yourself so hard? You’re young, and you have the rest of your life ahead of you to accomplish these things. You need to take it easy and not push yourself too much.” My reply to him–I was about 19 at the time–was that I was NOT young, and that I’d already lived about 25% of my life so far (based on 75 years of age, which is close to the average life expectancy for men in the US).

Since then, I’ve kept a reminder on my phone that notifies me the percentage of my life already lived goes up another whole number. It’s been a helpful motivator for me in achieving my goals and becoming the man I want to be by reminding me that life is short.

50 Kate November 1, 2012 at 3:55 pm

If any readers get a chance to go to Rome, it’s worthwhile to add a visit to the Capucin Crypt, the most amazing Memento Mori I’ve ever seen: http://www3.sympatico.ca/tapholov/pages/bones.html

Also, I wanted to add my deepest condolences to you, Daniel Crandall. Thanks for sharing a private and difficult part of your life.

51 Jason Galaz November 2, 2012 at 10:32 am

I live by Memento Mori. Knowing what you have now will one day be gone and that it is natural puts life into perspective. It makes me more grateful.

52 Juliana November 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Slight edit: the “king” who looks oddly happy to be going off with Death is actually the Pope. The crown he’s wearing is called a triregnum, and it’s a traditional papal headdress that hasn’t been worn for a few decades. The three crowns symbolize worldly, ecclesial, and heavenly kingship. Presumably he’s happy to be going home to God.

53 Justin November 4, 2012 at 1:49 am

Just a correction and some additions to a good post:

The “king” happy to meet death is actually a pope, adorned with the traditional papal tiara and a stole, as several have pointed out.

Also another Dürer with a great memento mori: Knight, Dead, and the Devil:
http://www.fromoldbooks.org/Duerer/pages/1513-Knight-Death-and-the-Devil/969×1257-q50.html

I understand that a wider audience appeal for this post means that less art with St. Francis and St. Jerome would be displayed, for their iconography frequently employs a skull as a memento mori.

54 Andrew Short November 4, 2012 at 7:24 pm

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors

A great variation on the theme, with a skull that is only visible at certain angles. If you are in London go and see this picture.

Great post.

55 jg November 5, 2012 at 12:52 am

“What you are I once was. What I am you will become.”

Say that as if any pile of bones would be speaking to you. Makes our lives a little more precious.

56 kowalski November 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Today’s priest spoke of the mortality of men. He reminded everyone that beneath their flesh was indeed a skeleton. I was immediately reminded of this article.

57 John PJ November 20, 2012 at 7:26 am

The Self Portrait by Thomas Smith, is in the Worcester Art Museum, here in Massachusetts. I see it all the time.

58 Oddball November 24, 2012 at 6:57 am

Most people won’t talk about death because (in Western society at least) they have so little experience of it. They become upset about it and quickly try to change the subject.

What they forget is that aside from their privileged existence, that the other 80% of the world which lives on or below the poverty line has to deal with on a daily basis. Lots of kids don’t make it beyond their fifth birthday, while mothers also succumb to maternal diseases and fathers go down to car crashes, or endemic diseases like malaria and other maladies which poverty exacerbates.

Then there is the violent neighborhoods they live in. It all makes death a way of life.

I don’t mind talking about death. I grew up with violence and lost too many friends, even just this year.

Yeah, that’s right. Life sucks!

59 Ben the Mason December 3, 2012 at 8:31 pm

When I was 12, I read a book that asked the question, “why do humans teach their young to fear death? to fear what is inevitable is to drive them all insane.” i cant remember the book or author, but since then I have always tried to live without the fear of death. no doubt what lead me to the craft of freemasonry. Rest assured,my son will not be taught to fear death, but to live life. Memento Mori indeed.

60 Johnny K December 4, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I planned on getting this tattooed on my rib cage as a reminder to live life as you say ” death was seen as a motivator to live a good, meaningful, and virtuous life” And after showing my parents this article they allowed me to get it. Thank you for everything. Stay Manly.

61 Justin B. December 4, 2012 at 7:22 pm

awesome postings

62 Nandini December 26, 2012 at 8:10 am

This is wonderful, loved it. I am familiar with death from my childhood…and I believe we should not only try to live beautifully but die too in beauty and peace around us…a tall order indeed i know :-)

63 strand48 May 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Throughout my life i have wondered about the meaning of life and the afterlife After losing my only son who was 19, I feel an even more kinship to death, with him being on the other side knowlng I will someday be with him, along with all of our deceased loved ones. Excellent article that should put our present day attitudes in tune with our predecessors.

64 Will October 29, 2013 at 11:50 am

In the Modern (yes, capitalised) world, the emphasis is on the individual, especially given the capacity for movement today, but in the Pre-modern world the emphasis was on the collective identity. Family was the key identity, not the person themselves, and this identity was something we were initiated into (and would later initiate our own children into, in continuity), whilst today we are encouraged to create many divergent through purchases….and as a result our society is falling apart into distant and atomised individuals.

It is good to see art like this, because it can pull up the infantile fantasy of me-me-me, and then give space to the realisation that alone we are death. Life is not something we own. It is something we hold in trust, to bequeath to our children and they to theirs.

65 Jamiel October 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Another great article! A few years back the rock group, Flyleaf, put out an album with the same name, “Memento Mori.” I’m still to this day trying to grasp everything from the project, but this article definitely helps. Reflecting on death or the swiftness of our lives isn’t a bad thing, but like you say in the article, it’s a challenging to topic to help us become better people. Here’s a link to that Flyleaf album: http://www.amazon.com/Memento-Mori-Amazon-Exclusive-Version/dp/B002VGYNOU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1383069604&sr=8-2&keywords=flyleaf+memento+mori

66 Ryan October 29, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Memento Mori, an old theme. As a young pastor I have stood by the bedsides of the dying, buried many a friend. It does change your perspective in, I think, a healthy way. Ecclesiastes 7:2 “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”

67 Christoph Jeschke October 29, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Thank you for this article.

The king on the Heidelberger Bilderkatechismus (it’s page 129r, http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg438/0267) isn’t a king, it’s a/the pope. The crown is clearly the tiara.

68 Christopher October 29, 2013 at 7:23 pm

All of your posts are interesting, but this one is phenomenal. Well thought out, well illustrated. Nicely done.

69 Wole January 24, 2014 at 3:23 am

I have always seen death as inevitable and have always loved to be reminded of death. This feeling has become heightened by my dad’s death a month ago. No day passes without me thinking of death and I have come to embrace the thought.
“What you are, I once was. What I am, you will be…”
To everyone reading this, memento mori.

70 Bannef February 11, 2014 at 9:26 am

Great post. For some reason, skulls and skeletons doesn’t particularly make me think of death. Maybe it was those anatomy classes, but instead they just makes me think “you can’t really see it, but that’s inside of you right now. Isn’t that cool?”

I think it’s because everyone I know who has died was cremated. I’ve never looked at burial plot and thought “his bones are all that’s left,” it’s always been ashes that fit into a very different shape.

71 Henry Graf February 26, 2014 at 2:14 am

As a boy, I was always freaked out by those paintings, the skulls were scary. In my teen years, I associated the skull motif with evil…I celebrated my 39th birthday last Wednesday & am I preparing to celebrate Ash Wednesday next week. Stumbling across this article was a treat. Since I can’t afford to pay a dude to follow me around & whisper “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” I’ll settle for hanging a “memento mori” piece in my study.
Thanks, Brett & Kate, for the inspiration.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter