For a lot of people, thinking about death is uncomfortable. This is understandable. In our contemporary western culture, the average person isn’t very exposed to death. While you might have been to a family member’s funeral or watched a gory horror movie, death isn’t something that’s talked about much in polite society.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- ‘Memento Mori’ Definition
- History and Where ‘Memento Mori’ Comes From
- ‘Memento Mori’ in Popular Culture and Real-World Examples
Yet, no matter how little we talk about it, death is the great unifier. It’s the one inescapable truth. Rich or poor, old or young, death could be around any corner. Everyone meets this same end regardless of how they get there.
It’s hard to capture the complex meaning behind this ever-present knowledge that death could be closer than you think. The Latin phrase ‘Memento Mori’ is a simple way to describe the lingering presence of death. In this guide, we’ll define this Latin phrase and take a trip through time to trace its use through history.
‘Memento Mori’ Definition
Since Latin isn’t widely spoken today, most people don’t recognize the meaning of ‘Memento Mori’ at first glance. In English, this term translates to ‘Remember you must die.’ The Latin word ‘Momento’ means ‘to remember’ while ‘more’ means ‘death.’
While it’s easy to mistake this term as depressing, it’s truly the opposite. It’s the slogan for the death positive movement, and it’s simply a way to encourage people to live life to the fullest. It implies that there’s an important balance to strike between remembering that death could always be near and dwelling on the inevitable.
This term gained popularity in culture during the 1590s, and it’s a noun that applies to any reminder of life. This phrase became popular during Medieval times when death brought final judgment before God. Typically a decorative object or ornament, ‘Memento Mori’ decorations come in all different shapes and sizes.
Whenever you look at something or hear something that reminds you of your own inevitable death, you’ve stumbled upon a ‘Memento Mori.’ This type of imagery and symbolism is popular in art, culture, and music.
History and Where ‘Memento Mori’ Comes From
There are different ways to represent death in different cultures. In ancient times, death was much closer than it is today. Disease, famine, and war were realities for many, and people were constantly reminded that the end of life was near. Thus, ‘Memento Mori’ was born.
The term ‘Memento Mori’ began as an ancient Roman tradition. It was said that after any military victory, the generals would parade the streets. The public cheered them on, and this was one of the greatest honors. It’s easy to understand how Roman generals could feel larger than life, as though they’re unaffected by death.
However, these generals had their own reminders following behind them. Slaves stood in the same chariot, whispering an important message. They said, “Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die.” These words brought these generals back to earth and reminded them of their humanity.
These macabre messages weren’t unusual in ancient Rome. In 89 CE, Roman emperor Domitian staged a ‘Memento Mori'' banquet. With slaves dressed as phantoms and gifts of gravestones, the emperor reminded his guests that their pleasures were only temporary. In a time when the emperor could have you killed at a moment's notice, these guests surely felt this message deep in their bones.
The ancient Egyptians also had a respect for death. One of the most well-known ancient wonders of the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza, stands tall as one of the many Egyptian symbols of death.
Not only did the Pyramid serve as a shrine to death with pharaohs resting in its tombs, but it also highlighted the Egyptian’s unique ways of remembering death. The preservation of dead bodies and the creation of death chambers was just one of their many ways to appreciate life. The Egyptians, like the Romans, fully embraced the philosophy behind ‘Memento Mori.’
In Medieval times, Europeans were constantly exposed to death. Epidemic disease, famine, poor nutrition, and violent warfare meant that the typical life expectancy was only around 30 years old. Death was a large part of daily life. That’s why the ‘Memento Mori’ message was so prominent in Medieval art and culture.
Because death meant either one of two things (Heaven or Hell) to Medieval Christians, it wasn’t something to be feared. For those who lived a life free of sin, death was a way to escape the suffering of this time. The trend in European art wasn’t to look away from death but to confront it openly.
Some of the popular imagery in the Medieval ages shows just how popular this rule of thought was at the time. Visuals of dancing skeletons, snakes, and corpses could be found in paintings, iconography, and tombs across Europe.
The mission behind this art was to urge sinners to repent, and there’s an undeniable beauty in the fearlessness of these artists. At a time when the Black Death brought down kings and commoners alike, this was yet another reminder that death was never far away.
‘Memento Mori’ in Popular Culture and Real-World Examples
Today, you’ve likely encountered ‘Memento Mori’ in some shape or form. Not only is it popular in the art of today, but it’s also reached modern pop culture in the form of music, movies, and TV. Steve Jobs famously hinted at this philosophy during his lifetime. He said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
To show you just how common this messaging is, let’s explore some popular culture references. Did you catch any of these?
- In Mac Miller’s final music video before his death, he carved Memento Mori on a coffin.
- The Weeknd’s album Memento Mori features hidden death symbols to show the balance between life and death.
- Disney World’s Magic Kingdom named their Haunted Mansion gift shop Memento Mori since it’s a place to buy death-themed gifts.
- The most recent Indiana Jones film features the search for a mystic skull that has destructive powers.
- True crime shows and podcasts are currently at an all-time peak in popularity, hinting at society's fascination with murder and death.
- Christoph Nolan’s 2000s film Memento is a psychological thriller that inspired the short story “Memento Mori” about a man who loses his long-term memory.
- Artist Damien Hirst sold a diamond-encrusted skull for millions of dollars in 2007, sending the media into chaos.
These are just a few of the many ways 'Memento Mori’ appears in daily culture and art. All of these symbols go to show that death is hidden (and not-so-hidden) in daily life. It’s intertwined with our western, consumer-driven culture. Today, ‘Memento Mori’ is our love for true-crime shows and sugar skulls on popular fashion. It’s just as permanent as death itself.
Acceptance Through Death
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for how to accept death, ‘Memento Mori’ encourages us to think critically about the meaning of life. Whether we find comfort in religion, pop culture, or art, we can all agree there’s something soothing in seeing how humans have found peace in death in the past.
From roman generals keeping a level head off the battlefield to European plagues, death is always closer than we think. However, death planning doesn’t mean we need to live in fear. Instead, it’s a chance to celebrate life at every moment.
- Capshew, James H. “Memento Mori.” Indiana University. IU.edu.
- Cybulskie, Daniele. “Memento Mori: Medieval Images of Death.” Medievalists. Medievalists.net.
- “Death and the Afterlife.” University of Missouri: Museum of Art and Archaeology. Missouri.edu.
- Jobs, Steve. Goodreads. Goodreads.com.
- Lovell, Jeremy. “Hirst’s Diamond Skull Sells for $100 Million.” Reuters. 30 August 2007. Reuters.com.
- “Memento Mori: It’s Time We Reinvented Death.” NewScientist. 17 October 2012. New Scientist.com.
- Rowan, Lily. “The Symbolism of The memento Mori.” History Daily. 1 December 2016. HistoryDaily.org.
- Soth, Amelia. “A Roman Feast of Death.” JStor Daily. 17 October 2019. Jstor.org.