Do you ever wonder what those skulls are that tend to litter writers’ and poets’ decor? Maybe you have come across these types of decorations in other areas such as at school, or in a philosopher’s nook. If so, and if you are curious about what they are, then you are in the right place to learn about memento mori. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.
The memento mori or a memento mori is a symbol that is meant to remind people of the eventuality of death. This can be something as simple as a skull, or something more personal such as a funeral shroud. The literal meaning of memento mori is “to remember that you must die”.
While most people don’t use a literal reminder of death to keep them humble, the saying does have its uses. Early Puritan settlers on the other hand had an intense fear of death and the afterlife. As a result, they would place memento mori in order for those living to observe it and keep the grave in mind. It is meant to serve as a reminder to live a life based on good deeds keeping in mind the punishments waiting in the afterlife. More information can be found in the video (here).
“My English teacher keeps an urn behind his desk as a memento mori, it’s pretty creepy”.
“Many people who lived through Hiroshima keep some of the ashes as a memento mori”.
“There are several cultural mementos that serve as memento mori for younger generations”.
“American war museums are a form of memento mori that serves as a collective memory for the nation”.
The phase has a Latin origin and the first documented use was in 1598. Its roots have been traced back to ancient Roman civilization and the translation means “remember that you must die”. At the time of its creation it was attributed to the slaves that were known to travel with the generals during their war victory. These slaves would whisper to the general during the parade that they too were destined for the grave. The goal of this phrase was to help ground the generals and prevent an overabundance of hubris.
Pride and inflated ego have long since been one of the many pitfalls of man that have led to ruin. But keeping a reminder, or being reminded of the grave, it is easier to avoid mistakes of hubris or thoughts of immortality. The idea and the phrase memento mori are also used by many religious groups. It serves as a visual method of turning the minds and eyes of the faithful away from worldly things and towards the afterlife. Though modern people may not use the macabre symbols of the past, the phrase, and ideas still live on today.
Phrases Similar to Memento Mori
- Tether to mortality
Phrases Opposite to Memento Mori
- Memento vivere
- Live in the moment
- Token of life
What is the Correct Saying?
- The proper saying is – memento mori.
Ways People May Incorrectly Say, Memento Mori
The phrase memento mori meant to be a reminder of death for the living. However, some people mistake it for a curse. Alternatively, some people may misuse the phrase by employing it in the wrong context. Some ways that Memento Mori is used incorrectly are:
- During happy events such as baby showers, birthdays, and weddings.
- When used as a hex or curse to wish someone ill.
- During jovial events such as corporate dinners, holiday parties, and the like.
Acceptable Ways to Phrase Memento Mori
Some ways that memento mori is used correctly are:
- In theology class, we spoke about the afterlife, and now I understand the purpose of memento mori symbols.
- It is important to pay attention to the memento mori our forbearers have left for us. They can give us a clue about how to move forward with positivity.
- Try to have a healthy balance of living your life out loud and also keeping memento mori in mind.