Approach me, stranger. Nothing in my story— Michael Coy
should startle you. Your flesh has always known it.
I just remind you. I’m Memento Mori.
In the Middle Ages, tombs and monuments often bore carvings of skulls and skeletons. It was to remind onlookers that they, too, were marked for death. These figures were known as “memento mori”.
However, the history of memento mori runs deeper. We take a trip through the ancient world on death, with generals, slaves, philosophers, playwrights, painters, and pharaohs, and The Grim Reaper.
Memento Mori | Meaning
What does the phrase ‘memento mori’ mean?
Memento mori, translated from Latin, means “remember you have to die.” Since death is mostly unpredictable, memento mori implores us to carry out our duties without wasting time and be ready when death comes. It also reminds one of the worthlessness of earthly possessions and titles at death.
This philosophical practice of death awareness started in ancient Rome and spread fast through the Western world. It was apparently morbid but was held in high regard.
Let’s dive into its origin story now.
Memento Mori | History
1. Origin of Memento Mori
Ancient Rome had the tradition of holding a ‘triumphus.’ It was a gala parade honoring a victorious general freshly back from the battleground. The general would enter Rome riding a four-horse chariot. While the captors and the souvenirs preceded the general, his troops would follow his chariot.
The procession would march through the streets to reach the temple of Jupiter, where the general was to offer a sacrifice. People in large numbers would throng the sides of the streets, shouting the deeds of their hero and rejoicing at the occasion.
The triumphus was extremely hard to obtain because the senate did not grant every battle-winner this honor. Of the many conditions, one had to have slain at least 5,000 of the enemy in a single battle. And so, it was the most cherished ambition of every Roman general.
The triumph parade was such a magnificent ceremony that it could make any general feel like a god.
In the chariot, as legend has it, a slave stood close behind the euphoric general. His sole duty was to whisper into the ears of the commander every once in a while:
“Remember you are but mortal.”
That grim reminder of his mortal nature was to force the general to take in the entire scene wisely and reasonably. And treat the grand occasion with humility, without forgetting that fame and glory are but temporary.
Many believe this custom was the origin story of the memento mori tradition.
2. Stoicism And Memento Mori
Is memento mori Stoic?
Memento mori was not a tradition of the Early Stoa (Zeno to Antipater), or the Middle Stoa (Panaetius and Posidonius). It was the philosophers of Late Stoa—the Roman Stoics—who took up the idea of memento mori. They became its prominent teachers and enthusiastic practitioners.
But how could a piece of Stoic advice to keep death in mind be rational? And how could a reminder that you are going to die can free you from your fears?
The Stoics used memento mori to urge people to live virtuously, without any delay. The Stoics wanted their followers to see each day as a gift and stop wasting time on trivial things. Since death could come at any moment, they have only a little time left to do good deeds.
The simple reminder urged people to detach themselves from their earthly riches and recognition. It told them of the fleeting nature of luxury and vanity. And the fact that no one could carry these with them once death claims their lives.
The Stoics repeatedly tell us, death is a natural part of life and not something to be afraid of.
Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius talked about the importance of meditating on one’s own death. They taught death is not waiting for us at the end of our life, but it is already upon us. Death claims each day we pass in our life.
Seneca, the Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, advised, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Marcus Aurelius (read his most famous quotes here) frequently reminded himself of his death:
- Once he was telling himself: “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
- Then he reminded himself thus: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left, and live it properly.”
- And once again, he warned himself: “Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.”
Epictetus, himself a former slave, often reminded his students of the slave whispering memento mori to the celebratory general, in this way:
If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.” — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 3
That advice from Epictetus seems inhumanely cruel. William Irvine, author of A Guide to The Good Life, tries to explain its import. He says a parent who remembers the transcience of life will never take their children for granted but will pause each day to shower them with love and appreciation.
A bit of more palatable advice by Epictetus on death is this: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.”
Ryan Holiday, the person who single-handedly brought Stoicism into modern social consciousness, is fond of saying, “Live your life as if you’re not sure whether your time on this earth is ending or not. Get your sh*t together. Handle what’s important. Take care of others. Enjoy yourself. Be at peace.”
Ryan starts his TEDx talk with memento mori, right at the beginning. In this illuminating, memorable talk, he says, “You’re all gonna die. Every single one of us in this room is going to die. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
3. Memento Mori And Church
This idea of “keeping death in mind” spread with the growing influence of the Church. In the 2nd-century, the Christian writer Tertullian’s version of the triumphal parade described the slave as whispering, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” (“Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you’re [only] a man.”).
In European devotional literature, Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) was the first Medieval text on dying and preparing for death. It was published around 1415 CE, probably at the request of the Council of Constance, Germany. It offered practical advice on the rites and procedures of a good death and how to “die well.”
Ars Moriendi was a much-needed response by the Roman Catholic Church to the horrific effects of the Black Death. The first chapter of Ars Moriendi explains the good side of death and assures the dying person it is nothing to be afraid of.
The Book of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Sirach), 7:40, reads as: “In all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.”
4. Memento Mori And Egyptians
The Romans and the Egyptians were destined to share deeper bonds in history when Julius Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra. He helped her ascend the throne of Egypt as its sole ruler.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra began a romantic affair with Marcus Antonius or Mark Antony, the Roman general. When Mark Antony faced a violent defeat at the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra chose suicide rather than being captured.
The man coming after Cleopatra was Octavian or Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Augustus took the whole of Egypt for himself. As Rome expanded, Nile-irrigated Egypt became the breadbasket of Rome.
The Egyptians celebrated the lore of memento mori in a way that was much grander than that of the Romans. They built magnificent pyramids as timeless shrines to the pharaohs resting in their graves.
The pyramids display the unique way the Egyptians remembered death. They show how the Egyptians had devised ingenious methods to mummify the corpses. They fabricated exquisite face masks for their dead and were experts at designing intricate and luxuriant death chambers. All to show their many ways to honor life, even in death.
Memento Mori | Popular Culture
1. Memento Mori In Music And Dance
Memento mori was a genre of requiem and funeral music, and it had a rich traditional history in early European music. Jewelry like rings and pendants, pens, belts, skulls, and coffin motifs inspired by memento mori became popular towards the end of the 16th century.
Another notable genre of memento mori is Danse Macabre (Macabre Dance or Dance of Death). It is a species of dramatic play that spotlights the universality and inevitability of death.
The tradition traces back to the middle of the 14th century. The early plays featured a skeletal figure wearing a hooded robe and carrying a scythe: The Grim Reaper.
The Grim Reaper would ambush a powerful person, usually a king or a pope, and tell them their time is over. As he took him to his grave, he called on people from all walks of life to dance all the way to the cemetery.
The purpose was to remind them of the fragility of life and the futility of earthly glories. It was a memento mori, that death was coming for them, regardless of where they lived.
The Danse Macabre also found expression in fine art, and many murals, frescoes, and paintings celebrated it. One of the most famous paintings on the theme is the “Triumph of Death” in the cemetery of Pisa, painted between 1450 and 1500. Perhaps the oldest picture of the Dance of Death is the one at the Cemetière des Innocents at Paris (1425).
Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century. He crafted a series of the “most marvelous woodcuts ever made” on Dance of Death. The first book edition, containing forty-one of Holbein’s woodcuts, came out in 1538.
2. Memento Mori In Literature
Among the best-known literary meditations on death in English are Sir Thomas Browne’s The Urn of Burial and Jeremy Taylor’s The Holy Dying.
The Roman poet Horace used the Latin phrase “carpe diem” to exhort people to “seize the day.” It was to tell them they should enjoy life while they can because no one is promised a tomorrow. In the eleventh poem of his Odes, published in 23 BCE, he wrote:
“carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”
It translates as “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.”
Epicurus, who lived around 300 years before Horace, philosophized on the idea of carpe diem. The Epicureans believed living for today while enjoying the pleasures of life can help them attain a state of tranquility or ataraxia.
Epicurus believed pleasure is the greatest good, and one should live a life of pleasure, free from all fear. The Epicurean way to a happy life is something we can achieve today, once we are ready. Epicureanism later became the inspiration for Horace.
The man who has learned to die has unlearned how to be a slave; he is above all power, or at least beyond its reach. What do prison and guards and locked doors mean to him? He has a free way out. There is only one chain that keeps us bound, the love of life, and even if this should not be rejected, it should be reduced so that if circumstances require nothing will hold us back or prevent us from being ready instantly for whatever action is needed.— Epicurus
Shakespeare wrote of death in many of his plays. Hamlet—Prince of Denmark explores death in its many aspects. The play begins with the appearance of the ghost and ends with several violent deaths. In between, Hamlet contemplates suicide and develops an obsession with death.
In an iconic moment, Hamlet holds up the court jester Yorick’s skull and ponders its transition from life to death. Hamlet grieves what becomes of even the most alive and vibrant of people after death—reduced to a hollow skull.
Hamlet finally accepts death, without fear or longing, and points out “the readiness is all.”
3. Vanity, Vainglory, And Memento Mori
Perhaps the most notable art genre associated with memento mori is vanitas, which started emerging in the later years of the 15th century. They showed both vanity (a deep interest in appearance and achievements) and vainglory (excessive boastfulness vulgar display), and their futility at death.
The painting above is inscribed with these Latin words: “ipsa adeo morti vel formosissima cedvnt.” Translated, it means “Even the most beautiful one gives in to death.”
The vanitas art form focused on still life and contained various symbols reminding the viewer of the worthlessness of worldly goods and vanities. Mostly, they carry the traditional memento mori symbols such as skulls, extinguished candles, withered flowers, books, hourglasses, sundials, and musical instruments.
Some famous paintings centering on death, fear of death, and memento mori are:
▪ “Pyramid of Skulls” by Paul Cézanne, 1901
▪ “Skull with Burning Cigarette” by Vincent van Gogh, 1885
▪ “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya, c. 1819-1823
▪ “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi 1614-1620
▪ “Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone)” by Frida Kahlo, 1938
▪ “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli, 1781
▪ “Skull” by Albrecht Dürer, 1521.
▪ “Young Man with a Skull” by Frans Hals, c. 1626
▪ “Still-Life with a Skull” by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1671
▪ “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1891
▪ “Bull Skull, Fruit, Pitcher” by Pablo Picasso, 1939
4. Day of The Dead & Halloween
The Day of The Dead (Día de los Muertos) is celebrated all throughout Mexico, and other Latin American countries like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala. Every November 1st and 2nd, they build altars to honor their deceased family members, decorated with marigolds, candles, incense, food items, and toys.
It originated with the Mayans (250 to 900 CE) and the Aztecs (1345 to 1521 CE). They believed it was the way a person died that dictated where the soul will go in the afterlife.
The Mayans held those who died by suicide, sacrifice, in battle, and during childbirth, their souls went straight to heaven. Similarly, the Aztecs held the souls of soldiers slain in battle, and the women who died giving birth traveled with the sun into the heavens. While the souls of those Aztecs, who died a normal death, had to pass through nine levels of the underworld.
Based on these beliefs, those ancient civilizations developed a rich ritual around the cult of ancestors and death. In later days, they transformed into the current Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. In 2008, UNESCO added it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Since 1994, the citizens of Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico, have celebrated the Festival de Calaveras or the “Festival of the Skulls.” It draws from the Day of the Dead traditions.
Halloween, also known as All Saints Eve, began to be observed around 1556. It heralds the arrival of winter and is celebrated as a day when the graves may open and “the dead awake and speak to many.” It is now tightly woven into popular culture all around the world. The true message behind Halloween is an ancient one: Memento mori.
Memento Mori | Importance
Why is memento mori important?
Memento mori, reminding ourselves we have to ultimately die, helps us become fearless of the many consequences of death. Once we are ready for death, we no longer fear what could happen to our legacy, or who would claim our properties and goods. We start living for goodness, rather than for gains or glories.
Memento Mori Meditation: We pause for a few moments in our day and softly tell ourselves, “Memento mori.” By this, we remind ourselves of our own mortality, the shortness of life, and the fickleness of death. This exercise helps us to:
- Accept death as non-intimidating
- Appreciate our relationships more
- Be grateful for the things we have
- Let go of the grudges and regrets
- Try learning/experiencing new things
- Work harder towards our life goals
- Avoid hubris, anger, egoism, vanity
- See the transience of wealth and fame
- Not delay carrying out our duties
- Be mindful in everything we do
- Focus on the processes and actions
- Disconnect from future results
- Accomplish more, live better, love deeper
The Story of Diogenes: When asked how he wished to be buried, Diogenes of Sinope wanted them to throw his body outside the city walls, unburied. So that wild beasts might feast on him. When asked if he minded this, “Not at all, as long as you give me a stick to chase the creatures away!”
They pointed out he wouldn’t be able to fend off the wolves with his stick since he would lack awareness. Diogenes replied, “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I’m dead?”
With memento mori, we also stop worrying about what would happen to the people we love, and who would take care of them, along with our pets and plants. Instead, we go ahead and love them more in our lifetime.
Memento Mori | Final Words
In antiquity, life was more violent, and death was much closer than today. The wars, diseases, famines, and tyrannical rulers were the realities reminding people the Grim Reaper was lurking somewhere nearby.
Looking back at those times, it seems memento mori was a cruel burden on their brief lives. Their memories needed to erase deaths, even if for a while, as they lived within a pervasive doom.
Over the centuries, memento mori seems to have disappeared from our social consciousness. Today, we expect to live much longer than those ancient Roman generals. Still, death remains as unpredictable as in those times. Yet we remain unprepared for death in times of a modern Covid pandemic.
Death is something that I cannot escape,— Matt Lillywhite, Sep 2020
So whenever my time comes,
I accept my fate.
I’ll carry to the afterlife my heart and soul,
But I accept the inevitable,
And what I cannot control.
So I will live in the moment, one day at a time,
And each day I’ll show gratitude,
For this life I call mine.
I am not scared, since my life is a story,
So I’ll live by these words,
Memento mori reminds us that the great equalizer, death, awaits us. Of course, we all die in the end. We all also suffer and rejoice in our very own ways through life to reach death. So, what do we gain by repeating it in our minds?
Perhaps this. In loving those we care for while remembering they would die one day, we cherish them more. We hug them tight and love them with our full presence. Beyond death, ours or theirs, what remains are those memories.
So, memento mori and carpe diem!
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
• Our story: Happiness Project
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