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Memento Mori

Memento Mori reminds us, the living that the best preparation for a good death, is to lead a good life. Only then will this ensure that we reach Heaven.

Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die

Memento Mori was taken very seriously back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today however, I believe that the message Memento Mori portrays, is just as significant, except for the Heaven bit.

Memento Mori skull and crossbones
Memento Mori skull and crossbones

The Puritan Belief

After doing some research, I discovered that The Puritans of the 16th and 17th century had strong religious views following the Reformation in England.

The Puritan belief was that only a select few could reach Heaven, with the remaining doomed to be born, live, die and then rot.

Back in the day, burial near the altar within a church was the preferred choice for a Puritan as Heaven was within reach. Unfortunately, churches were running out of space, hence the beginning of artistic expression on headstones within the churchyard.

By placing final reminders upon one’s headstone, this would ensure that others would follow in their path.

Mortality Symbols

The skull and crossbones is a common symbol of Memento Mori. Other common symbols include: –

  • Hourglass to show that time is fleeting
  • Wings to show an ascension to Heaven. Typically shown on skulls and hourglasses
  • Coffins and Sexton tools

Centuries ago with various plagues and diseases, death was always imminent. Thankfully modern advances in medicine and life expectancy have increased.

Winged skull with an hourglass and Sexton tools
Winged skull with an hourglass and Sexton tools

I do feel disappointed that the art of Memento Mori and its message isn’t popular. COVID is a reminder that life can be fleeting and that we should live life for today!

Why should we be afraid of death?

As a professional tarot reader, it was only the other day that a lady in her 80’s came to see me for a reading.

Sadly, she was experiencing depression as a result of watching her friends die as well as awaiting her own demise.

Of course, it must be very difficult and I have lots of empathy, but I advised her to LIVE LIFE FOR TODAY!

Live life for today!

The message of Memento Mori certainly lives on in me.

Unfortunately, conditioning of our beliefs begins in our childhood and never stops. We are led to believe that most of us won’t live beyond our 70’s, but many of us do.

It was only last year (2021) that there was a report of the oldest lady in the world dying at the age of 135. Ref: The Independent

Sadly, my client was simply waiting for the inevitable. She had full use of all of her senses and she wasn’t in a wheelchair. She did leave me with feelings of positivity.

Death is something that we cannot avoid and therefore we should remember to live our lives, Memento Vivere, as death may arrive within the next hour or day.

Memento Mori Headstones

Memento Mori Headstones in the 16th century usually displayed the following: –

  • Deceased’s name
  • Date of birth and date of death
  • Here lies the body of‘ placed before the name
  • An image of a skull with or without crossbones

The vision of the skull and the word ‘body’ summed up the expression that we are born to live, die and rot.

Skull and Crossbones
A skull and crossbones

Cadaver Stones and Memento Mori

Cadaver stones, a choice of the wealthiest in society in the 14th to 15th centuries, depict a rotting corpse in a funeral shroud. Often they show plenty of creatures eating the flesh. These stones are some of the earliest depictions of Memento Mori.

No matter how much wealth a person had or what their status was in life, we are all equal in death. Latin phrases like Memento Mori (remember that you will die) and Memento Vivere (Remember to live) became popular around the same period of time.

  • A coffin symbol on a gravestone symbolises death
  • Seeing a clock dial on a headstone is also new to me, yet it’s quite common in the graveyards of Cornwall that I visited. A clock dial can represent a passage of time, and in some cases if it has hands it can show the time of death.

Death Heads

During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death, and the possibility that one could reach Heaven.

With this changing attitude, imagery on the headstones began to soften. You can read more about death heads here.

Finally, the gruesome imagery of Memento Mori has now softened thanks to The Victorian’s. Their use of urns and flowers have unfortunately, replaced the art I love to see.

The changing fashion of death heads
The changing fashion of death heads
  • The hourglass seen on headstones symbolises that time is passing rapidly and we are one hour closer to our death. If the hourglass depicted on a headstone is on its side, it usually represents that the deceased had their life cut short unexpectedly
  • A scythe or sickle on a gravestone, commonly associated with the Grim Reaper is a symbol of death because of its use to cut down the harvest (reap). We also see the mention of a scythe in the bible, revelation 14

And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.

King James Bible
  • A sexton looks after a church or graveyard, and is typically a grave digger. We often see his tools such as a spade or a turf cutter, together with a ribbon, carved on a headstone
  • Skulls and skeletons represent death and we see them together with the following phrases: –

Memento Mori – Remember you will die
Memento Vivere – Remember to live
Vive Memor Leti – Live remembering death
Fugit Hora – Time Flies

  • Torches on a headstone sometimes look similar to a candlestick and shouldn’t be confused. If a torch is seen lit, or upright, it represents life. If inverted a torch denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife

Winged Skull on Headstones

  • Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depict the ascent to Heaven.

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