memento mori

[ muh-men-toh mawr-ahy, mohr-ahy, mawr-ee, mohr-ee; for 1 also Latin me-men-toh moh-ree ]
/ məˈmɛn toʊ ˈmɔr aɪ, ˈmoʊr aɪ, ˈmɔr i, ˈmoʊr i; for 1 also Latin mɛˈmɛn toʊ ˈmoʊ ri /

noun, plural memento mori for 2.

(italics) Latin. remember that you must die.
an object, as a skull, serving as a reminder of death or mortality.

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Origin of memento mori

First recorded in 1585–95, memento mori is from the Latin word mementō morī

Words nearby memento mori

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What does memento mori mean?

Memento mori is a Latin phrase that translates to “remember you must die.”

A memento mori is something, historically a skull, that serves as a reminder of death and mortality.

Where does memento mori come from?

The phrase memento mori emerged in late-1500s, early-1600s 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 1600 and 1700s. 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.

How is memento mori used in real life?

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 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 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 at 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

 on social media. For instance, 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.

More examples of memento mori:

“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 (London), April 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for memento mori

memento mori
/ (ˈmɔːriː) /

noun

an object, such as a skull, intended to remind people of the inevitability of death

Word Origin for memento mori

C16: Latin: remember you must die
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012