Creepy Month: Memento Mori


Creepy month is a new series we want to try this year, and it involves theming our store and blog posts around the creepiest of the creepy in anticipation of Halloween. Creepy month will start October 1st, and will last through Halloween. We wanted to try this because of our love of the macabre, and we want to engage our readers in different ways, so let us know if you like it!

This installment of Creepy Month will go over the act of Memento Mori, something that we've been over in a previous post: The Meaning Behind The Skull and Crossbones. But not in detail, and I've been really getting into the whole concept, as well as the classical art and jewelry inspired by this "Memento Mori"

 

Remember Your Own Mortality

Memento mori ("remember that you have to die") is a Latin expression, originating from a practice common in Ancient Rome; as a general came back victorious from a battle, and during his parade ("Triumph") received compliments and honors from the crowd of citizens, he ran the risk of falling victim to haughtiness and delusions of grandeur; to avoid it, a slave stationed behind him would say "Respice post te. Hominem te memento" ( "Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you're [only] a man."). It was then reused during the medieval period, it is also related to the ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") and related literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.

In art, mementos mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality. In the European Christian art context, "the expression... developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

 

Death Through History

An example of use in the classical period was Plato's Phaedo, where the death of Socrates is recounted, introduces the idea that the proper practice of philosophy is "about nothing else but dying and being dead."The Stoics were particularly prominent in their use of this discipline, and Seneca's letters are full of injunctions to meditate on death.  

The thought came into its own with Christianity, whose strong emphasis on divine judgment, Heaven, Hell, and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness.Many memento mori works are products of Christian art, although there are equivalents in Buddhist art. In the Christian context, the memento mori acquires a moralizing purpose quite opposed to the Nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink) theme of Classical antiquity. To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an invitation to focus one's thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife. A Biblical injunction often associated with the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate's Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40, "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.") This finds ritual expression in the rites of Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed upon the worshipers' heads with the words "Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

 

Death in Design

The most obvious places to look for memento mori meditations are in funeral art and architecture. Perhaps the most striking to contemporary minds is the transi, or cadaver tomb, a tomb that depicts the decayed corpse of the deceased. This became a fashion in the tombs of the wealthy in the fifteenth century, and surviving examples still create a stark reminder of the vanity of earthly riches. Later, Puritan tomb stones in the colonial United States frequently depicted winged skulls, skeletons, or angels snuffing out candles. These are among the numerous themes associated with skull imagery.

Another example of memento mori is provided by the chapels of bones, such as the Capela dos Ossos in Évora or the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. These are chapels where the walls are totally or partially covered by human remains, mostly bones. The entrance to the Capela dos Ossos has the sentence "We bones, lying here bare, await yours."

The famous danse macabre is another well-known example of the memento mori theme, with its dancing depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike. This and similar depictions of Death decorated many European churches. 

 

Time Ends All

A Really interesting application of Memento Mori is through time. The idea of impermanence and time are so closely bonded, that we used timepieces, formerly as an apt reminder that your time on Earth grows shorter with each passing minute. Public clocks would be decorated with mottos such as ultima forsan ("perhaps the last" [hour]) or vulnerant omnes, ultima necat ("they all wound, and the last kills"). Even today, clocks often carry the motto tempus fugit, "time flees". Old striking clocks often sported automata who would appear and strike the hour; some of the celebrated automaton clocks from Augsburg, Germany had Death striking the hour. The several computerized "death clocks" revive this old idea. Private people carried smaller reminders of their own mortality. Mary, Queen of Scots owned a large watch carved in the form of a silver skull, embellished with the lines of Horace.

It Awaits...

Perhaps the reason why so many of us are attracted to reminders of mortality is because although there is a great fear of the unknown, it's in our nature to explore the unknown. We fear, yet admire the absoluteness and peace of death. This hasn't changed since the dawn of man, and we will always find ways to remind ourselves of our mortality. 

But that's not necessarily a grim thing to think about. Most of us abhor the visage of a skeleton, because it invokes a sense of dread. But look at it another way. It's one of the things that makes you completely unique. We're only given so much time, and these reminders, to me, signify that we shouldn't waste our time here, that every moment should be lived to the absolute fullest. 

So go. Remember death, Respice post te. Hominem, te memento. But never forget to live.