Memento mori – Not afraid of Death are you?

"Remember you are mortal, remember you will die"

Introduction

Memento mori – a reminder of the certainty of death.  If there is one absolute fact in life it is that at some point in life we will die.  And it is not a matter of if, but how and when?  

In 21st century society, we tend to avoid the thought of death if we can.  It is a taboo subject and a source of unease and discomfort around most people.  However, for those who practice certain philosophies or religions, the certainty of death is a form of meditation and something that is contemplated every single day.  Why would anyone meditate on death and what could the possible benefits of such a morbid practice be?

In this post, the history of memento mori origins from various cultural perspectives will be discussed. How it has evolved and spread in literature, art, and present-day popular culture. 

Roman Origins

“Memento mori is roughly translated as “Remember you must die.” The phrase is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition.  After a major military victory, a Roman general would have a lavish drawn-out spectacle known as a ‘Triumph’ to honour them.  Dressed in a laurel crown and a purple, gold-adorned toga (Purple was the colour of kings).  They would be paraded in a four horse-drawn chariot through adoring cheering crowds.  The whole spectacle was designed to elevate the General to almost divine status for his great victory.  Indeed he would be viewed as godly to the plebs (ordinary Roman citizens), Roman officials and soldiers attending.  However, just beside him in the cart would be a lowly slave.  It was the slave’s job to whisper continuously into the Roman General’s ear the following phrase: 

“Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!”

(Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!)

The slave reminded the general that his moment of glory was transient and that he still had an appointment with death sometime in the future.  Despite all of the earthly honour and glory, he would attain in his earthly life that he was still a mortal man.  One day he would lie in a tomb just like every other mortal that had gone before him.

Remember that you will Die

Nowadays a Memento mori is a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death found in art, literature and architecture.  Although the phrase originated in ancient Rome, It is a common theme found throughout various cultures and philosophies throughout the world from ancient Greece to Samurai era Japan.  

In times past, contemplating your death was often perceived as a liberating and empowering concept in a person’s life.  The idea was not to be morbid or live a life in fear, but rather the opposite, to inspire and motivate.  Once the idea of eternal life was dismissed there was no longer anything to fear.  The emphasis is put on the individual that they were on the clock and so as not to waste time.  They were empowered to live a fearless, meaningful life and not dwell on the trivial things that had no real meaning.

The ‘Obol’ a form of Greek currency placed on the eyes of the recently deceased before burial.  The coins were used by the deceased to pay the ghostly ferryman Charon for passage crossing over into the afterlife following death.

To assist people in reminding them of their limited time on this planet and their mortality.  Artists created paintings, sculptures, and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death. Churches displayed memento mori art to compel viewers to meditate on death, reflect on their lives, and re-dedicate themselves to preparing to meet God. 

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.

Please enjoy our post on how some ancient cultures used their own memento mori symbolism.  This was to remind and motivate them to utilise their brief time on earth to the fullest.  Consider getting your own memento mori to help you focus on the important and empower your life. 

The Egyptians and Death

Anubis weighs the heart (the soul) of Ani in the afterlife to determine his fate. The heart was weighed to determine whether they were worthy to enter the afterlife as one of the blessed dead.

To the ancient Egyptians, death was not the end of life but the beginning of the next stage of an individual’s eternal journey. There was no word in ancient Egyptian which corresponds to the concept of ‘death’ as usually defined, as ‘ceasing to live’, since death was simply a transition to another phase of one’s eternal existence. 

Once the heart had been weighed, and the soul judged by the god Osiris, it went to eternal paradise, The Field of Reeds.  Here everything which had been lost at death was returned and one would truly live happily ever after.

In the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic system of writing the ankh represents the concept of eternal life
The Scarab Beetle was a symbol of death, rebirth, great power, guide and protection in the afterlife.

Archaeologists findings from excavating tombs, pyramids and sarcophagi have revealed that death was a large part of ancient Egyptian culture. Egyptologists maintain the preservation of dead bodies and the building of the elaborate tombs were an act of celebrating life and a reverence for its impermanence.  Reminders of death in Egyptian culture include the Ankh (above) and the Scarab beetle (above).  Although these are the most associated, you could easily include Egyptian Sarcophagi, the Pyramids, the Book of the Dead as reminders also.

There was a custom in ancient Egyptian where feasts concluded with the raising of a toast to a skeleton!  The toast of  “Drink and be merry, for such shalt thou be when thou are dead.”  This was done to remember how quickly life could pass by.  It also served to remind that all persons present would have no presence on this earth other than memories and bones.  Those celebrating acknowledged the moment would pass into forgotten memories upon their deaths.  The toast served as a reminder not to take life for granted.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Sarcophagi containing mummified remains
The Pyramids. Ancient tombs containing the final resting places of the Pharoahs

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is full of philosophers pondering on the inevitability of death.  More notable though is their attitudes of being resolute and unflinching in the face of death.  The Stoics in particular are one group that included death in their regular meditations.  Seneca’s letters are full of instructions to his students to meditate on death.  Epictetus told his students that when kissing their relatives, they should remind themselves that they are mortal, curbing their pleasure.  Democritus trained himself by going into solitude and frequenting tombs.  The Stoics used Memento mori to invigorate life and to create priority and meaning. They treated each day as a gift and reminded themselves constantly to not waste any time in the day on the trivial and vain.

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

(Seneca in Moral Letters to Lucilius)

During the height of the Roman Empire, the Philosopher/Emperor Marcus Aurelius was another heavily influenced by Stoicism.   The emperor considered it imperative to keep death at the forefront of his thoughts. By doing this, Aurelius managed the obligations of his position guided by living life in the present moment.  Many today keep readings of the stoics for daily meditations, of which Meditations by Marcus Aurelius may possibly be the most popular.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

(Marcus Aurelius)

Christianity

Christianity and Christian art are rife with Memento mori.  Indeed, remembering the inevitability of one’s death is a core Biblical theme. Cathedrals, churches, tombs and Christian paraphernalia (such as crucifixes) are imbued with connotations to death and the afterlife. Much of Christian art is designed to make Christians reflect on the gift of life.
The actual expression ‘memento mori’ developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

The most popular book in the Bible is the Book of Psalms from the Old Testament. The mention of Death in the Psalms centres around the fact that ‘death is inevitable’, Sheol (the land of the dead) and the immortality of the soul.

The Crucifix, the most important symbol of death and rebirth in Christianity.

O Remember how short my time is.”

(Psalm 89:46)

“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field;  the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more”.

(Psalm 103:15-16)

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me”.

(Psalm 23:4)

Medieval Europe

Life in Medieval Europe during the Late Middle Ages was a period of absolute devastation. The Black Death (a catastrophic plague) killed approximately 25 million people in Europe alone (one-third of the population).  Europe was also subject to many long wars such as the 100-year war between England and France.

Danse Macabre - Medieval Art

Out of the seemingly never-ending horror grew an artistic subgenre of Memento mori.  This art form became known as Danse Macabre.  Danse Macabre literally translates as ‘Dance or Death’.  This art genre had its origins in late medieval times but became popular during the Renaissance.

The artwork had depictions of Death (in the form of a skeleton) carrying off rich and poor people alike. In the art, people from all walks of life were invited by the jovial looking skeletal form of Death to follow him in a dance to the grave.  Death would be depicted walking, dancing or playing music.

Danse Macabre - Medieval Art

With no regard for status, title or earthly position, whether king or beggar, the message was clear. No one regardless of age or rank was excluded, Death was coming for everyone at some point.  These grim depictions of Death decorated many European churches.

La Dia de Muerte - Mexico's Day of the Dead

Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival La Dia de Muerte (Day of the Dead).  La Dia de Muerte festivities are famous for their vibrant colours, costumes, dances, gifts and food. Although the theme is essentially death, the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased friends and family. Throughout Mexico, partygoers put on colourful makeup and costumes, take part in parades, dances, and make offerings to lost loved ones.

Calavera Catrina. Dia de los muertos. Mexican Day of The Dead.

La Dia de Muerte originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Central American people.  These people considered mourning the dead disrespectful since (to them) death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead are still perceived members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit.  During La Dia de Muerte, they temporarily return to Earth. Today’s La Dia de Muerte celebration is a mixture of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place between November 1st and 2nd (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) on the Catholic calendar.

Painted Skulls
La Dia de Muerte Altar

Gifts are given to guests and friends and offered to departed relatives on an altar dedicated to them.  This includes sugar skull treats, the bread of the dead (Pan de Muerto) and sweet bread (pan dulce).  Another manifestation of memento mori is found in the ‘Calavera’. 

The Calavera is a type of poem usually written in honour of a person who is still alive. However, the poem is actually written as if that person were dead! These compositions have a sarcastic, comedic tone and are often given by friends to each other during celebrations.  Calaveras are a popular part of the celebrations and are often broadcast on television and radio.

Buddhism

Buddhist’s do not shy away from the idea of death.  Indeed, meditation on death is a central teaching in Buddhism. The Buddhist practice of maraṇasati is essentially a meditation on death.  The word is a compound of maraṇa ‘death’ and sati ‘awareness’, so very similar to memento mori.   Maranasati is considered to be essential to enhance a person’s life. It enables the recognition of the transitory nature of a person’s physical life.  By taking stock of their mortality, practitioners are forced to ask the question as to whether they are making the best use of their lives.

“Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

(Buddha)

The Wheel of Life in Buddhism.  A symbol of the life cycle including death and rebirth.

Buddhists believe death is a natural part of the life cycle. They believe that death simply leads to rebirth. For Buddhists, death is not the end of life, so it is not something to be feared. Where and how a person is reborn depends on their good and bad actions in past lives.

Karma Chameleon

According to Buddhism, everything that happens is the result of Karma (the law of cause and effect).  Every action throughout a person’s lifetime (good and bad) has an effect on their future. The way a person lives their life also affects the way they die. So it is very important for a Buddhist to prepare for death by living a noble life (being kind, generous, truthful). They are encouraged to be true to themselves and to care for and about those around them. By doing this at the point of their death they can be calm and fearless.

Every Buddhist considers preparation for death an essential meditation.  Since it is something that can happen at any time. For this reason, it is important to make every moment count and live a good life.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Buddhism practised in Tibet, where it is the dominant religion.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a mind training practise known as Lojong. The initial stages of the classic Lojong begin with ‘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, the death of the body is certain.
  • The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.

Tibetan Citipati mask depicting Mahākāla. The skull mask of Citipati is a reminder of the impermanence of life and the eternal cycle of life and death.

There are a number of classic verse formulations of these contemplations meant for daily reflection to overcome the strong habitual tendency to live as though we will certainly not die today.  These include the Udānavarga, the Bodhicaryavatara and the Bardo Thodol aka ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the translated text from an ancient Buddhist teacher Padma Sambhava (circa 8th Century CE).  The scriptures aim is to transform our experiences in daily life by the way we think about dying and death.  It contemplates the processes of dying and the after-death state.  One of its primary focuses is on assisting an individual in escaping the cycle of death and rebirth. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, the ‘Bardo’ is a transitional state between death and rebirth.  The Bardo is the central theme of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  A text intended to both guide the recently deceased person through the ‘death bardo’ (transition) to gain a better rebirth and also to help their loved ones with the grieving process.

The Samurai and Death

Feudal Japan saw the rise of the Samurai as a formidable military power.  These highly versatile and skilful soldiers are ranked as some of the deadliest warriors ever to be found on a medieval battlefield.  During the Sengoku period (Warring States period) of Japanese history, Japan was in a near-constant state of civil war.  This period lasted from 1467 to 1615!  During this time the Samurai would be surrounded with battle and death continuously, indeed many Samurai would have lived their entire lives knowing nothing but battle.  As such, they had to be ready to embrace death on any day at any time in the service of their lord (Daimyo) against rival clans.

Over time a code of ethics developed for the Samurai (Bushido – The Way of the Warrior).  Bushido encompassed how Samurai should act throughout their existence.  In many ways it is similar to the European Knights code of Chivalry, both had the desired effect, essentially to reign in the warrior caste’s aggressive nature and make them more civilised.

Samurai in full battle armour

There was no one officially written code for how to act.  However, there are a number of written sources or guides written over the centuries.  Each states similar ideals for a Samurai to strive towards such as sincerity, frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery and honour until death.

After the infusion to Japan of Zen Buddhist ideas (such as contemplation of death) became popular with the population (including the Samurai caste).  Many books espousing these virtues were published.  One such book was the classic treatise on samurai ethics ‘Hagakure’ (Hidden Leaves). The Hagakure was a spiritual guide for the samurai written by Yamamoto Tsu-Zmoto in the early 18th century which stated that Bushido (the Way of the Warrior) was to be found in death.

The Way of the Samurai developed over time into the practice of death.  Indeed it was a Samurai’s duty never to let that thought stray too far from their minds.  This was encouraged so that they should always be ready to meet it at any given time or date. 

“Rehearse your death every morning and night. Only when you constantly live as though already a corpse (jōjū shinimi) will you be able to find freedom in a martial Way, and fulfil your duties without fault throughout your life.”

(Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai)

A Samurai had to preserve their honour and the honour of their lord at all costsEven if this meant death in battle. As long as the honour of their house was preserved they could die with their honour intact.

If a samurai’s honour or loyalty were compromised, he would be put to death.  Often their heirs and sometimes his whole clan could lose any land and social status that had previously been granted. Ways of losing their honour included suffering a crushing defeat in battle and rather than return home in this manner, many would commit seppuku (ritual suicide by slitting open their own bellies). 

Bushido was the code of the Samurai, along with it came resolute acceptance of death.

This was also considered a way for the Samurai to preserve their honour and die with some dignity in difficult circumstances.  For instance, if a Samurai needed to atone for an unworthy act or if he wanted to avoid capture in battle. Being taken prisoner was considered to be one of the least honourable things that could happen for a warrior in feudal Japan.  

Prior to their deaths, the Samurai would often write Death Poems (Jisei) to reflect on the fragility of life.  A Samurai facing imminent death was believed to have special insight into the nature of death and the value of life. The poem was expected to be graceful and natural, usually in the theme of transient emotions. If the samurai mentioned their impending death in the poem it would be considered poor form and uncouth.  The poem would also serve as a written glimpse into the nobility of the condemned Samurai and how they wished to be remembered after death.

The Vikings, Valhalla and Death

For the Norsemen or Viking culture, Death was something that was preordained.  The Norns (three female figures who decide the fate and length of life for every being on earth) had already woven their fates and they had an allotted time when they were due to die.  For the majority of the Norse, that was something they were comfortable with.  What Norsemen did take very seriously however is how they died as that would determine where they went in the afterlife.  According to Norse mythology, once a Viking died they would be received into one of the Vikings nine realms. 

These realms varied in terms of reward with Helheim being the worst (Like a frozen Hell for the cowardly and dishonourable) and Valhalla (the hall of Odin where those who fell in battle would feast and fight for all eternity)  For a Viking to die a cowardly or miserable death of apathy or of old age was the worst thing.  As such, they spent much time on their funerals and burials trying their hardest to send their friends, family or fallen comrades to a successful afterlife.

Party time in Valhalla Functional Workout. Upper Body. Pad work. Rowing. Train everyday. Super Soldier Project.
Party time in Valhalla with Odin after a successful death in battle!

The Vikings believed that the brave warriors who fell in battle would reap the most reward in the afterlife. This belief in many ways freed the Vikings to walk into battle with no fear and this would be the goal for many Viking in death. If you weren’t a warrior then of course you still had an opportunity for an afterlife as well.

Valhalla: – situated in Asgard the realm of the gods. The home of Odin. For brave warriors and the fallen.

Folkvangr: – a meadow realm, another place brave warriors could live in the afterlife. A field ruled over by the Goddess Freya. A good alternative.

Helgafjell: – the ‘holy mountain’.  A nice place to live out the afterlife for those who did not die in battle but lived a good life.

Helheim: – the worst outcome for a Norse person in the afterlife. Frozen, desolate and dark, ruled by the Goddess Hel.  Reserved for Norse who had died in a dishonourable way, such as laziness, old age.

The Valknut

The memento mori in Nordic countries was the ‘Valknut’.  Broken down ‘Valr,’ translates as ‘slain warrior’ in old Norse and ‘knut’  means ‘knot.’  The symbol is synonymous with Odin, who was Chief of the Gods as well as the god of war and death. For that reason, the Valknut is also referred to as Odin’s knot.  After a battle, Odin would handpick warriors who had the pleasure of going to Valhalla to spend the rest of their days. These lucky men would be escorted by Valkyries, female figures responsible for choosing who lived and died on the battlefield. The remaining fallen warriors went on to Fólkvangr.

The Valknut symbolises the transition from life to death and is composed of three triangles linked in the middle. This symbol is one of the most well-known Norse symbols. The points of the triangles equal nine points.  These are believed to correspond to the nine realms in Norse mythology.

The Norse ‘Valknut’ the symbol of the transition from life to death.

Since Odin would openly welcome warriors slain in battle into the halls of Valhalla. Vikings went into battle looking forward to being greeted once they died, and thus were notoriously fearless in battle.  When a warrior died they always wanted to make sure it was with a sword or an axe in their hands for that reason.  No Viking wanted to end up in Helheim, the world of the dead where evil men ended up. Hel was the goddess that ruled this realm, and she punished anyone who came to her.

Many tombs in Scandinavia and former Viking lands have the Valknut drawn on them.  Having these symbols showed faith in the cycle of life and death and a belief other worlds existed beyond the earth.

Discussion

The simple truth is, we have all been given a fatal diagnosis.  As the Foo Fighters song ‘DOA’ goes “No one’s getting out of here alive!”  Ignoring or trying to hide from your mortality is a pointless, waste of energy.  So why run from it? Instead, stand your ground and say “what can I do with the time allotted to me?” Aim to live a worthwhile and authentic life unfettered by fear.  Once you have conquered a fear of death, anything goes.

“To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

(Michael de Montaigne)

The idea of memento mori and meditating on your mortality is only depressing if we miss the point. Used correctly it becomes a tool to create priority, perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a valuable resource and not waste it on small inconsequential things. Death doesn’t make life pointless but instead creates purpose and drive.

No one knows for certain how much time is on the clock. Don’t waste your time on trivial, pointless things and don’t take for granted the time you have.  It doesn’t matter if it is a coin (obol), a symbol (Valknut, crucifix, ankh), books or just regular contemplation or meditation on the idea.  Keep a Memento mori with you and live a fearless existence ready for whatever fate sends your way

“Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”

(Marcus Aurelius)

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