Stories / Remembering Your Mortality: The Power of Memento Mori

Remembering Your Mortality: The Power of Memento Mori

Vincent van Gogh - Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette.jpg

Do you ever feel like you're invincible? Like nothing could ever bring you down? Well, my dear reader, it's time to face the cold, hard truth - you are mortal, and one day, you will die. Don't worry, I'm not about to get all gloomy on you. In fact, I'm here to tell you that remembering your mortality can actually be a powerful tool. How, you ask? Through the ancient practice of memento mori.

The Ancient Origins of Memento Mori

Believe it or not, reminding ourselves of our own mortality is nothing new. In fact, it goes all the way back to ancient times. The phrase "memento mori" is Latin for "remember that you will die," and it was commonly used in Roman times as a reminder to live life to the fullest.

Stoicism and the Concept of Death

For the ancient Stoics, contemplating one's own mortality was a central tenet of their philosophy. The idea was that by accepting the inevitability of death, they could live a more virtuous life, free from the distractions of material possessions and petty concerns. This philosophy was not limited to the Stoics, as many ancient cultures believed that contemplating death was a way to live a more meaningful life.

Memento Mori in Roman Culture

In ancient Rome, memento mori took many forms, from the famous "talking statues" that reminded citizens of their mortality, to the use of skull imagery in art and architecture. It was a reminder that life is fleeting and that we should seize each moment as if it were our last. This reminder was not limited to the elites of Roman society, but was a common theme throughout the culture.

One example of this is the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a time of feasting and revelry. During this holiday, it was common for people to wear masks and costumes, and for social norms to be temporarily suspended. However, even during this time of celebration, the idea of memento mori was present. One of the most popular costumes during Saturnalia was that of the "laughing skull," a reminder that even in the midst of joy and celebration, death is always present.

The Middle Ages and the Danse Macabre


Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and memento mori takes on a more macabre tone. The danse macabre, or "dance of death," was a popular form of art that depicted death as a skeleton leading people of all walks of life to their graves. It was a reminder that death comes for us all, no matter our station in life.

However, the danse macabre was not just a reminder of death, but also a commentary on the social and political issues of the time. The Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century, had a profound impact on the way people viewed death. The danse macabre was a reflection of this, as it depicted people from all levels of society being led to their graves by death, regardless of their wealth or status.

Despite its macabre nature, the danse macabre was also a celebration of life. It was a reminder that death is a natural part of the cycle of life, and that we should cherish the time we have on earth. This sentiment is echoed in the famous quote from the Roman poet Horace, "Carpe diem," or "seize the day."

In conclusion, the concept of memento mori has been present in human culture for thousands of years. From the Stoics of ancient Greece to the danse macabre of the Middle Ages, people have been reminded of their own mortality as a way to live a more meaningful life. While the reminders may have taken different forms throughout history, the message remains the same: life is fleeting, and we should make the most of the time we have.

The Symbolism of Memento Mori Art

One of the most common forms of memento mori art is the skull. But why the skull? For one, it's a universal symbol of death, recognized across cultures. But beyond that, the skull represents the idea that beneath our skin and flesh, we are all the same. It's a reminder that no matter who we are or what we've accomplished, in the end, we will all be reduced to bones.

However, memento mori art is not just limited to skulls. Other symbols, such as hourglasses and skeletons, are also commonly used to remind us of our own mortality.

Skulls and Skeletons

Memento Mori art 'We're In This Together' by Marischa Becker for Non-Violence Project and Art for Causes

'We're In This Together' by Marischa Becker for Non-Violence Project

From the catacombs of ancient Rome to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, skulls and skeletons have long been used as symbols of mortality. They serve as a visual reminder that life is fleeting and that we should make the most of the time we have.

Skeletons, in particular, are a powerful symbol of death. They represent the idea that all of us, no matter how different we may seem on the surface, are ultimately the same underneath. They remind us that death is the great equalizer.

Hourglasses and Time

Hourglass on the background of the desert with sand a symbol of life

Another common memento mori symbol is the hourglass. In medieval and Renaissance art, hourglasses were often depicted alongside skulls and other reminders of death, serving as a reminder that time is running out.

The hourglass is a powerful symbol because it represents the idea that time is finite. Once the sand has run out, there's no going back. It's a reminder that we should make the most of the time we have and not waste it on things that don't matter.

Vanitas and the Fleeting Nature of Life

Vanitas was a genre of still life painting that originated in 17th century Netherlands. These paintings were filled with symbols of death and decay, from skulls to rotting fruit. The message was clear - life is fleeting, and everything we hold dear will one day be gone.

Vanitas paintings often featured objects that represented wealth and status, such as jewels and expensive clothing. These objects were meant to remind the viewer that even the richest and most powerful people in the world are not immune to death and decay.

Overall, memento mori art serves as a powerful reminder of our own mortality. It reminds us that life is short and that we should make the most of the time we have. By embracing the inevitability of death, we can live more fully and appreciate the beauty of life.

Memento Mori in Literature and Philosophy

It's not just artists who have been fascinated by the concept of mortality. Writers and philosophers throughout history have grappled with the idea of death and what it means for our lives.

Shakespeare and the Reminder of Death

In many of his plays, Shakespeare grapples with the idea of mortality and the fragility of human life. From Hamlet's soliloquy on Yorick's skull to Juliet's famous line "Death lies on her like an untimely frost," Shakespeare knew the power of memento mori.

One of the most famous examples of Shakespeare's preoccupation with mortality is the play Macbeth. The character Macbeth is consumed with the idea of his own mortality and becomes obsessed with the witches' prophecy that he will one day be killed. This fear ultimately leads him to commit murder and ultimately his own downfall.

Shakespeare's fascination with death also extended to his personal life. In 1596, his only son Hamnet died at the age of 11. This tragedy undoubtedly had a profound impact on Shakespeare and may have influenced his writing on the subject of mortality.

The Existentialist Perspective on Mortality

For existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the awareness of our own mortality is what gives life meaning. It's the knowledge that we have a finite amount of time on this earth that pushes us to live authentically and make the most of every moment.

Sartre famously wrote that "man is condemned to be free." This means that we are all responsible for creating our own meaning in life, even in the face of the inevitability of death. For Camus, the absurdity of life is what makes it worth living. The fact that we are all going to die one day gives us the freedom to create our own purpose and live our lives as we see fit.

Eastern Philosophies and the Acceptance of Death

In many Eastern philosophies, death is not something to be feared but rather accepted as a natural part of the cycle of life. For example, in Buddhism, the concept of impermanence teaches that everything is constantly changing and that nothing lasts forever.

Buddhist monks often meditate on death as a way of coming to terms with its inevitability. By accepting death as a natural part of life, they are able to let go of their fear and live in the present moment. Similarly, in Taoism, the concept of yin and yang teaches that life and death are two sides of the same coin. Without death, there can be no life, and vice versa.

Overall, the concept of memento mori has been a powerful and enduring theme in both literature and philosophy. Whether we choose to embrace our mortality or fear it, the inevitability of death is something that we all must confront at some point in our lives.

The Psychological Benefits of Contemplating Mortality

All this talk of death might seem macabre, but there are real psychological benefits to facing our mortality head-on.

When we think about our own death, it can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings. Fear, anxiety, and sadness are all common reactions. However, by taking the time to contemplate our mortality, we can actually start to experience a sense of peace and acceptance.

One of the biggest fears humans have is the fear of the unknown. By contemplating our own mortality, we can start to demystify death and make it less scary. We can begin to see it as a natural part of life, rather than something to be feared and avoided.

Overcoming the Fear of Death

When we confront our fear of death, we can also start to overcome other fears that may be holding us back in life. For example, if we are afraid of failure or rejection, we may avoid taking risks or pursuing our dreams. But when we realize that our time on this earth is limited, we can start to see that there is no time to waste. We can begin to take action towards our goals, even if they are scary or uncertain.

Furthermore, by facing our fear of death, we can also learn to appreciate life more fully. We can start to see the beauty in the small moments, and cherish the time we have with loved ones.

Living a More Authentic Life

When we realize that our time on this earth is limited, it can motivate us to live more authentically and pursue the things that truly matter to us. We may start to question the things we have been doing out of obligation or societal pressure, and instead focus on what brings us joy and fulfillment.

By living authentically, we can also inspire others to do the same. We may become role models for those around us, encouraging them to pursue their own passions and live life on their own terms.

Cultivating Gratitude and Appreciation

Finally, remembering our mortality can help us cultivate gratitude and appreciation for the things we have in life. When we realize that everything is temporary, we can start to appreciate the moments we have and the people we love that much more.

We may start to take less for granted, and instead focus on the blessings in our lives. This can lead to greater happiness and fulfillment, as we learn to savor the present moment and find joy in the simple things.

So there you have it, dear reader - the power of memento mori. By remembering our own mortality, we can live more meaningful lives and appreciate the beauty of the world around us. So go forth and carpe diem - you never know how much time you have left.

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Until next time, stay good /