Although awareness of, and teachings on death and dying, are no longer as common in the West, they have remained a part of daily life in other times and cultures – and continue to do so today.
This article looks at how the inevitability of death has been expressed artistically, and remembered in other ways.
A memento mori (Latin: ‘remember that you must die’) is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.
Memento conveys the meaning “to remember, to bear in mind”, usually serving as a warning: “remember!”
Mori conveys the meaning “to die”.
In other words, “remember death” or “remember that you will die”.
The expression ‘memento mori’ developed with the growth of Christianity. In the Christian tradition, there was a strong emphasis on divine judgment, heaven, hell, and the salvation of the soul. This brought death to the forefront of consciousness.
All memento mori works are products of Christian 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 found in 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.”
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 following sentence: “We bones, lying here bare, await yours.”
The 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. Danse Macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
Timepieces were formerly an apt reminder that our 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, “Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings.”
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 the European devotional literature of the Renaissance, the Ars Moriendi, memento mori had moral value by reminding individuals of their mortality.
In the late 16th and through the 17th century, memento mori rings were made.
Memento mori is also an important literary theme. Well-known literary meditations on death in English prose include Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying.
In the late eighteenth century, literary elegies were a common genre; Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts are typical members of the genre.
Apart from the genre of requiem and funeral music, there is also a rich tradition of memento mori in the early music of Europe. Especially those facing the ever-present death during the recurring bubonic plague pandemics from the 1340s onward tried to toughen themselves by anticipating the inevitable in chants, from the simple Geisslerlieder of the Flagellant movement to the more refined cloistral or courtly songs.
The lyrics often looked at life as a necessary and god-given vale of tears with death as a ransom, and they reminded people to lead sinless lives to stand a chance at Judgment Day.
The following two Latin stanzas (presented here in their English translations) are typical of memento mori in medieval music; they are from the virelai ad mortem festinamus of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat from 1399:
Life is short, and shortly it will end; Death comes quickly and respects no one, Death destroys everything and takes pity on no one. To death we are hastening, let us refrain from sinning.
If you do not turn back and become like a child, And change your life for the better, You will not be able to enter, blessed, the Kingdom of God. To death we are hastening, let us refrain from sinning.
Memento mori was the salutation used by the Hermits of St. Paul of France (1620-1633), also known as the Brothers of Death.
Colonial American art saw a large number of memento mori images due to Puritan influence. The Puritan community in 17th-century North America looked down upon art because they believed that it drew the faithful away from God and, if away from God, then it could only lead to the devil.
However, portraits were considered historical records and, as such, they were allowed.
Thomas Smith, a 17th-century Puritan, fought in many naval battles and also painted. In his self-portrait, we see these pursuits represented alongside a typical Puritan memento mori with a skull, suggesting his awareness of imminent death.
The Buddhist practice maranasati meditates on death. The word is a Pāli compound of marana ‘death’ (an Indo-European cognate of Latin mori) and sati ‘awareness’, so very close to memento mori. It is first used in early Buddhist texts, the suttapitaka of the Pāli Canon, with parallels in the āgamas of the “Northern” Schools.
In Japanese Zen and Samurai Culture
In Japan, the influence of Zen Buddhist contemplation of death on indigenous culture can be gauged by the following quotation from the classic treatise on samurai ethics, Hagakure:
The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.
In the annual appreciation of cherry blossom and fall colors, hanami and momijigari, the samurai philosophized that things are most splendid at the moment before their fall, and to aim to live and die in a similar fashion.
In Tibetan Buddhism
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a mind training practice known as Lojong. The initial stages of the classic Lojong begin with ‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind’, or, more literally, ‘Four Contemplations to Cause a Revolution in the Mind’. The second of these four is the contemplation on impermanence and death. In particular, one contemplates that;
● All compounded things are impermanent.
● The human body is a compounded thing.
● Therefore, death of the body is certain.
● The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.
There are a number of classic verse formulations of these contemplations meant for daily reflection to overcome our strong habitual tendency to live as though we will certainly not die today.
The following is from the Lalitavistara Sūtra, a major work in the classical Sanskrit canon:
The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash.
Beings are ablaze with the sufferings of sickness and old age, And with no defence against the conflagration of Death, The bewildered, seeking refuge in worldly existence, Spin round and round, like bees trapped in a jar.
A very well-known verse in the Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan canons states [this is from the Sanskrit version, the Udānavarga]:
All that is acquired will be lost What rises will fall Where there is meeting there will be separation What is born will surely die.
Shantideva, in the ‘Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ (Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra), reflects at length:
Death does not differentiate between tasks done and undone. This traitor is not to be trusted by the healthy or the ill, for it is like an unexpected, great thunderbolt. (BCA 2.33)
My enemies will not remain, nor will my friends remain. I shall not remain. Nothing will remain. (BCA 2:35)
Whatever is experienced will fade to a memory. Like an experience in a dream, everything that has passed will not be seen again. (BCA 2:36)
Day and night, a life span unceasingly diminishes, and there is no adding onto it. Shall I not die then? (BCA 2:39)
For a person seized by the messengers of Death, what good is a relative and what good is a friend? At that time, merit alone is a protection, and I have not applied myself to it. (BCA 2:41)
In More Modern Tibetan Buddhist Works
In a practice text written by the 19th century Tibetan master, Dudjom Lingpa, for serious meditators, he formulates the second contemplation in this way:
On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye.
If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind…
The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. There is no end to this meaningless work.
What a joke to prepare to live forever! Wherever you are born in the heights or depths of samsāra, the great noose of suffering will hold you tight.
Acquiring freedom for yourself is as rare as a star in the daytime, so how is it possible to practice and achieve liberation? The root of all mind training and practical instructions is planted by knowing the nature of existence. There is no other way.
I, an old vagabond, have shaken my beggar’s satchel, and this is what came out.
The contemporary Tibetan master, Yangthang Rinpoche, in his short text Summary of the View, Meditation, and Conduct:
You have obtained a human life, which is difficult to find, Have aroused an intention of a spirit of emergence, which is difficult to arouse, Have met a qualified guru, who is difficult to meet, And you have encountered the sublime Dharma, which is difficult to encounter.
Reflect again and again on the difficulty Of obtaining such a fine human life. If you do not make this meaningful, It will be like a butter lamp in the wind of impermanence. Do not count on this lasting a long time.
The Tibetan Canon also includes copious materials on the meditative preparation for the death process and intermediate period [bardo] between death and rebirth. Amongst them are the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead, in Tibetan, Bardo Thodol, the “Natural Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo”.
The “remembrance of death” (Arabic: Tadhkirat al-Mawt) has been a major topic of Islamic spirituality (i.e. tazkiya meaning self-purification, or purification of the heart) since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
It is grounded in the Qur’an, where there are recurring injunctions to pay heed to the fate of previous generations.
The hadith literature, which preserves the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, records advice for believers to “remember often death, the destroyer of pleasures.”
Some Sufis have been called ahl al-qubur, the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on mortality and the vanity of life, based on the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad to visit graves. Al-Ghazali devotes to this topic the last book of his “Revival of the Religious Sciences”.
Source: Taken and adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori