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Memento mori

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Vanitas Philippe, by Champaigne(Vanitas Philippe, by Champaigne)

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you will die.” It means a kind of artistic creations of all kinds, but all share the same goal, to remind men that they are mortal and the vanity of their activities or worldly interests. This phrase expresses the death both in his act of end of life but also in its absoluteness: death is everywhere, both beginning and end. Often associated with carpe diem pulled from Horace’s poem, this Latin phrase is less in hedonism than in the profession of faith.

Note however that “mori” is a present and not future (that would be “moriturum esse“). Which gives: “do not forget to die” and not “prepare to die.” This can also illuminate the Christian view of death. That it would be less of a closing event (all the philosophical tradition to Heidegger) as “possible at all times, we might inadvertently missed.”



It is said that in ancient Rome, the phrase was repeated by a slave to the Roman general during the ceremony of triumph through the streets of Rome. Standing behind the victorious general, a servant remind him that despite his today success, tomorrow was another day. The servant did it by repeating to the general that he should remember that he was mortal, that is to say, “Memento mori“. Yet it is more likely that the servant said “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!” (“Look around you, and remember that you’re a man!”), as Tertullian wrote in chapter 33 of his Apology.

The genre has been little used in classical antiquity. Memento mori then put forward especially the theme of carpe diem, “seize the day”, which included the advice to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The Christian origin of this quote is Isaiah 10:13 p.m., “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” But the idea appears outside the Bible in the Odes of Horace, with the famous phrase “Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus” (“Now we must drink, now we must strike the earth with a light foot”). Horace goes on to explain what to do now because there will be no drinking or dancing in eternal life after death. This is the classic theme of carpe diem.

The earthly vanity and divine salvation, triptych by Hans Memling(The earthly vanity and divine salvation, triptych by Hans Memling)


But that thought is developed mainly with Christianity, whose insistence on heaven, hell, and salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront. This is why most memento mori are products of Christian art. In the Christian context, memento mori acquires a moralizing purpose completely opposed to the Nunc est bibendum theme of classical antiquity. For the Christian, the prospect of death serves to highlight the vanity and the transience of pleasure, luxury, and earthly achievements, becoming an invitation to focus his thoughts on the prospect of life after death. Often associated with a memento mori biblical injunction in this context is “In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis” (Sirach 7:36, “In all your actions remember your end and you will never sin”).

Memento mori, mosaic, Museum of Naples(Memento mori, mosaic, Museum of Naples)

Mexican syncretism

(La Calavera Catrina of José Guadalupe Posada)

In Mexic, the Christian tradition of memento mori is mixed with those from the cults of Mesoamerican dead. Thus we find many artistic events of memento mori during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, especially through the character of Catrina and calaveras.

Performing arts

The focus areas for memento mori meditations are art and funerary architecture. For the minds of the twenty-one century, one of the most striking examples is probably transi, a tomb which represents the dilapidated body of the deceased. It became a fashion to the tombs of wealthy people in the fifteenth century, and examples that have survived continue to create a powerful reminder of the vanity of earthly riches. The famous danse macabre, with its representation of dancing Death taking the same way the rich and the poor, is another well-known example of the theme of memento mori. This representation of Death, and other similar, are decorating many European churches. Later, the grave stones of colonial Puritan from United States frequently represented winged skulls, skeletons, or angels snuffing candles.

In painting

The anamorphic skull (detail of the Ambassadors painting by Hans Holbein(The anamorphic skull (detail of the Ambassadors painting by Hans Holbein), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anamorph.jpg?uselang=fr)

Still life, sometimes called vanitas, “vanity” in Latin, because traditionally is slipping into this kind of paint a death symbol. The symbols could be obvious, such as skulls, or more subtle, like a flower losing its petals.

The famous painting by Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors holds a skull hidden image by the process of anamorphosis.

In Trinity by Masaccio, located in the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence, shows a bashful on which is written the following sentence: “I once was what you are and what I am you will be too.” Note that this painting is on one of the aisles of the church, in front of the door that opens to the cemetery.

In literature

During the French Revolution, we find the quote in the thumbnail of each issue of the newspaper Le Père Duchesne written by Jacques Hébert (1757-1794). The eponymous character rises above a small priest worshiping an ax. So this is clearly more of an anti-clerical evocation, than a philosophical recovery.

Memento mori was also an important literary theme. Famous literary meditations in English prose include Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial of Sir Thomas Browne and Holy Living and Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor. These works reflect the cult of melancholy at the time of Jacques I of England that marked the end of the Elizabethan era. At the end of the eighteenth century, the elegies were a common literary genre. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray and Night Thoughts by Edward Young  are typical illustrations of the genre. Memento mori was also addressed by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du mal, in the last poem in “Spleen and Ideal“, entitled The clock, when the clock finally said to the man: “Die, old coward ! It’s too late !” It is also possible to see a memento mori in his poem A carrion.

One can also find a modern literary variation on memento mori in the novella of Jorge Luis Borges El inmortal. In 1959, the British novelist Muriel Spark has written a novel entitled Memento Mori.

Memento Mori is also a work of Louis Calaferte.

Finally, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Lev Tolstoy, the deceased’s face evokes for living the kind of memento mori.

In movies

Memento Mori is a South Korean film directed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong in 1999. A story of the same title, Memento Mori, inspired the film of Christopher Nolan, Memento.

Do not forget you’re going to die is a French film by Xavier Beauvois, released in 1995.

In video games

The phrase “memento mori” is one of the key quotes from the video game Persona 3. It belongs to RPG series Shin Megami Tensei which contains numerous references to death, the afterlife and the human condition, particularly in the opus Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call.

In the words of its creator, Jason Rohrer, his video game Passage should be considered as a memento mori.

In Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the targeting of the C4 show “Memento Mori” on the screen from that target.

In Virtue’s Last Reward, the “memento mori” is part of history, it is taken as in the original sense in the direction to “remember his death.” It shows also a graffiti in places “memento mori, if the nineth lion ate the sun.”

Memento Mori is also the name of a mission of indie game, Infested Planet by Rocket Bear Games.

It is also registered Memento Mori on the shotgun in the video game BioShock Infinite.

In Japanese animation

In the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (season 1 episode 15): having developed a conscience to the concepts of life and death, a Tachikoma pronounce Memento Mori scared to finish the case.

In the anime Death Parade is the name of the episode 11 and the title of an OST of the same episode. (It is also the name given to blue cocktail prepared by the barman Decim.)

In Gundam 00 Season 2 series, memento mori is the name of a destructive laser weapon, orbiting the earth.

In Eureka Seven series, the name of the episode 28.

In the manga Fairy Tail is the name of the attack that Marde Geer created to defeat Zeleph.

In music

  • Memento Mori is the name of the group Butter Bullets album released in January 2015
  • The band Flyleaf has named one of his albums Memento Mori
  • Memento Mori is a Swedish doom metal
  • Memento Mori is a title of rapper Ol Kainry
  • Memento Mori is the name of a song by the group Kamelot album The Black Halo
  • Memento Mori is the title of a song by the artist The Streets, from the album The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, released in 2006.
  • Memento Mori is the title of a song by the rapper Lucio Bukowski
  • Memento Mori is the title of a song by the rapper Brav
  • Memento Mori is the title of a song by the group Antemasque

Transșated from Wikipedia

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