As "death culture" continues to grow and become more and more apparent in the world around us, the rise of "memento mori" use also continues to grow. But what exactly is meant by the phrase memento mori? In Latin, the phrase translates to "remember that you have to die" - a translation that is the best way to describe a memento mori! It is the greatest reminder in our lives: that we are mortals, that our lives should be detached from the superficial world around us, and that we will all die one day. It is the eternal reminder that no matter where you are in your life - if you are a king or a beggar, a rich man or poor man, a famous figure or an everyday family man - we will all suffer the same fate: death...
It's a scary truth that the majority of people will go their whole life putting into the back of their mind. Death is scary - we don't know what, if anything, lies on the other side. We don't know how we're going to die, where we're going to be, what will happen to our body afterwards... all of these things can cause a lot of restlessness and uneasiness with many people. Death is the inevitable future we all share, but we will all experience differently and alone. It's one of few experiences that we will literally experience truly alone - even if we are surrounded by family and friends - in the sense that we cannot bring them with us. We cannot die together and experience it together. My death and your death - though they may be at the same time and in the same way - are two very different, very real things. And memento mori are reminders of just that. In art, memento mori is quite literally the symbolic reminder of mortality.
In a lot of religious artwork, memento mori is used to focus on the afterlife. The artwork focused not so much on our mortal lifetime, but on the immortality of our soul through heaven or hell, as well as the salvation of our souls. Although many of the memento mori artworks are based around Christianity, there is also a lot of the same characteristics shown in Buddhism. One thing that is interesting about Christianity is the focus on the death of the body, and "Ash Wednesday," which occurred just two weeks ago, is a perfect example. When the ashes are placed on the forehead of the worshiper, the following is recited and is a reminder of our mortality: "Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."
Memento mori artwork is also very prevalent in, of course, funeral artwork. Tombs, as you surely know, are final resting places for the bodies of loved ones. However, cadaver tombs are tombs that depict the decaying corpse of the deceased. A cadaver tomb will typically have either skeletons or the deceased person decaying. It's a very real depiction of death that became popular in the Middle Ages, and even though it's not as commonly seen today, the cadaver tombs are really beautiful in a kinda weird way.
Memento mori is also seen in architecture such as the Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal or the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. These chapels are covered in human bones and other human remains. These chapels are straight-up death; they are a living representation of all that death offers us. Visitors to the Capela dos Ossos chapel are greeted with the following upon their arrival to the entrance: "We bones, lying here bare, await yours." Does it get more metal than that?!
Once you know what memento mori is, you'll begin to see that it is more common than you thought in today's society. There are great artists who seem to be influenced by the genre - for example, check out this gallery of paintings by Cam Rackam we featured last month: in it, you'll find some beautifully done modern day memento mori pieces.
It's important to note that from the time that the times are changing, and with it, peoples views on death. In the past, death is accepted and people were more open to talking about death and being around death. In modern day 2017, we try and hide death from public view. Death makes us uncomfortable, and part of me wants to think that might be a natural reaction since in the back of our minds, we all know we are going to face death one day. But the other part of me wants to say that that reaction to death may be because we are not as open about death as our predecessors. Which may be why memento mori was a lot more popular back then than it is now - you don't exactly see many people buying cadaver tombs in cemeteries anymore, right? Just a thought.
If you have any favorite pieces of memento mori, please share it with us, either on social networks or through our contact page! We'd love to keep the conversation going about the beautiful art of death.