What is a Memento Mori?

Niki Foster

Memento mori refers to a wide range of elements in art with the purpose of reminding the audience of their own eventual death. It may be the theme or an entire piece, or it may be a small element, such as a diminutive skull in the corner of a painting. In Latin, the phrase means "Remember you are mortal."

Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.
Divine imagery could be considered Memento Mori.

While these elements are sometimes thought to convey the message "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die," in European Christian art, in which they abounds, they are more often a reminder of the vanity of earthly glory and pleasure. For this reason, still life paintings were formerly known as Vanitas, as they customarily included a memento mori of some sort. Common figures used in such paintings include skulls, hourglasses, snuffed candles, flowers or fruit past their prime, and insects. They are often subtly and cleverly worked into an elaborate still life.

Anything related to the passage of time can be a memento mori, and many public clocks once included phrases such as Tempus fugit meaning "time flies," or used an automated figure of Death to strike the bell on the hour. Personal watches were also often adorned with images such as skulls. Other small memento moris were intended to be carried on one's person as a reminder of mortality. One such piece, on display in the Cloisters museum in New York City, is a medieval carving in the shape of a diminutive coffin that opens on a scene of Dives, or the rich man, in Hell.

Another popular genre for memento mori is funerary art. Many cemeteries feature headstones or memorial statues depicting skulls or skeletons. During the late medieval era in Europe, tombs were sometimes topped with an image of the deceased's decayed corpse, rather than his or her living body, as was common in earlier eras.

Memento mori appears in literature and music as well as in visual art. It is not as popular as it once was, but people can still find examples in the modern era, particularly in the literary and musical realms. The death clock, a computer toy that calculates the user's hour of death and counts down to it, hearkens back to earlier personal memento mori clocks and can easily be found online.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


I've always thought that a memento mori as a positive thing. A reminder that life is not unlimited so you must live the days you have to the fullest. After I recovered from breast cancer I had memento mori tattooed on the back of my neck and my family was horrified, but I understand the phrase to mean "eat, drink and be merry..."

Post your comments
Forgot password?