Memento Mori: The Less Bro-y YOLO
The definition of memento mori according to Merriam-Webster is, “a reminder of mortality.” This idea has been executed in many ways over the years to serve different ideological purposes— from highlighting the uselessness of material objects to reminding people that whatever your socioeconomic class, you too will die. In this article, I will give you a brief overview of memento mori art, and offer ways to incorporate memento mori into your life.
While most of society avoids talking about death, this wasn’t the case in the past. Symbols of death have been used as reminders to live well— meaning both “live how god wants you” and “take advantage of life” depending on the time period and artist. The basic idea of memento mori artwork is a piece that includes death symbols, the most common of which is a skull.
Beyond just reminding people of their mortality, Vanitas paintings also point out that material objects do nothing to change our mortality. It is from a subset of memento mori art called "vanitas." These pieces depict the juxtaposition of death with material items. The purpose of this juxtaposition is to show the inevitability of death and the meaninglessness of objects. One famous Vanitas painting is called "Still Life with a Skull" created by Philippe de Champaigne in 1671. This particular painting is slightly different in that the three objects represent three elements of existence— the flower is life, the skull is death, and the hourglass is time. All of it together says, "memento mori”— remember you will die.
This subset of memento mori focuses on reminding people of shared mortality. That is, the idea that no matter your wealth, fame, or beauty, you still won’t be able to escape death. These paintings generally depict skeletons accompanying people of all stations—from the highest priest to the lowest peasant— to a dance with death.
VICTORIAN DEATH PHOTOGRAPHY
The Victorian relationship with death is fascinating and multifaceted and is a story for another time. However, when I’ve mentioned this piece to peers, most people brought up the Victorian photos of dead loved ones. These photos often stemmed less from a desire to be reminded of their own mortality and more from a desire to have a memory of their loved one. Prior to photography the only way to memorialize someone’s image was through drawing or painting which was too expensive for most people. Photography made memorializing loved ones more accessible. Dead loved ones were posed in lifelike positions. Sometimes the corpses even had their eyes propped open for the photographs, or color tints were added to the prints to make the deceased seem alive.
CONTEMPORARY MEMENTO MORI
Memento mori symbols of death have been adopted into our popular culture to the point where the skull no longer triggers any thoughts of mortality, but rather an attitude of slight edginess or badassery— although, judging by the pink bow earrings that are sold at Clare’s, even the fringe element of skulls are degrading. However there is a resurgence of death awareness happening in our culture right now— Caitlin Doughty creating The Order of the Good Death, the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, and so many more. All of these people, artists and death workers alike, are aiming at bringing back the spirit of memento mori— namely that thinking about death can improve our lives drastically. If we confront our fear of death, others can’t use it to manipulate us into making fear-based decisions. If we remember that we could die at any moment, or our loved ones could die at any moment, then we will be motivated to fill all of our moments with kindness, love, vitality, and authenticity.
Whether you want to honor a dead loved one or remember your own mortality, the spirit of memento mori is a good way to add depth to your life. Remembering you will die, and can die at any moment, helps you to live in alignment with your values, treat those you love with care, and put everyday struggles into perspective. (Think I’m insane for thinking it’s good to think about death? Read my in-depth look at what studies say about thinking about death HERE.)
HOW TO INCORPORATE MEMENTO MORI INTO YOUR LIFE:
- Spend 5-10 minutes recalibrating your priorities by contemplating what you would change in your life if you knew you were going to live until old age, for 10 more years, 5 more years, 1 year, a month, a week, or a day.
- Write a letter to a dead loved one.
- Purchase or create a piece of art with death symbols incorporated into it. Place this piece of art somewhere you see every day and when you walk by it, make a point to think to yourself, “I will die. My loved ones will die. How is that going to change what I do today?”