Where does memento mori come from?
Memento mori as a phrase and object that emerged in late 16th- and early 17th-century Christianity as an instruction to value eternal life of the spirit over the temporary life of the body. For instance, a 1579 poem addressed to a man on his deathbed, and headed by the epigraph "Memento Mori," notes that the "flesh is frail" and implores the reader to seek mercy from God.
The Hermits of St. Paul of France—a religious order in the 1620s and sometimes called the Brothers of the Dead—notably included the phrase memento mori on their seal and were said to use it as a greeting among brothers. The hermits also kept skulls around the monastery and in their cells. Such skulls as reminders of inevitable death came to be known as a memento mori. In the first part of King Henry IV, published as early as 1598, Shakespeare has Falstaff jokingly compare his companion Bardolph's face to "a death's-head or a memento mori."
The skull motif, along with the phrase memento mori, was used on numerous graves in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1708, a sermon titled "Philip's Memento Mori," instructing listeners to use possible rewards of the afterlife to govern their lives, was given at a funeral in London.
During this same period, though, the memento mori was also being used in jest. Echoing Shakespeare, the 1744 play The Modern Wife has a "portly" man compare another to a memento mori, likening the latter's gaunt features to a skull. A comedic poem from London Magazine in 1750 describes the story of a man, who accidentally kills himself while trying to escape a scolding wife, as an allegorical memento mori.
Over time, the number of objects that could serve as a memento mori expanded. An 1838 newspaper article from Edinburgh, Scotland speaks of a coffin being kept in a home as a memento mori. An art treatise from 1830 describes broken amphorae in classical art as a memento mori. An 1830 story even notes that accurately dating events in one's past can remind one of their age and serve as a memento mori.
Who uses memento mori?
Although memento mori was historically used to instruct one to ignore the ephemeral pleasures of earthly life, in modern contexts it has come to behave more like carpe diem—a call to the enjoy life while one can.
In the early 1900s novel Henry Brocken, for instance, one character exhorts: "'Memento mori!' say I, and smell the shower the sweeter for it." Barbara Boehm, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests that this inversion of memento mori isn't exactly new, however, with carpe diem themes present in historical examples of memento mori art.
Art historians indeed use memento mori as a technical term for artworks that contain reminders of mortality, including the classic skull but also hourglasses, candles (which burn out), and and flowers (which decay). The term is particularly associated with a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, which features a hidden memento mori skull only visible as a certain angle.
Memento mori is also more generally used in speech and writing as a learned term in popular reflections on aging and death. In this vein, memento mori has supplied the title for a number of popular works, including a 1959 novel about a prank-caller whose "Remember you must die" causes people to reflect on their lives. A 2015 art book called Memento Mori explores images of death across time and cultures.
Use of the phrase in a religious context appears to be seeing a resurgence on social media. Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Catholic nun, tweeted about keeping a plastic skull on her desk, with the hashtag "#mementomori," in 2017. Other contemporary uses of the hashtag notably come from Catholics.
What's not to like about a #mementomori hourglass made out of bones? Located on the wall above the pulpit at All Saints', North Barsham, Norfolk...
@LandscapeIan, March, 2018
When you get to your mid-50s and people around you start dropping down dead there is little need for a memento mori. Nevertheless I do like a good graveyard.
Kenny Farquharson, The Times, April, 2018
Catholic Valentine’s Day idea: take your special someone to mass for ashes and then remind each other that your time together is so precious because someday you’re both going to die #mementomori
@itsmel_veee, January, 2018