How can a piece of Stoic advice to keep death in mind be rational? And how always remembering that you are going to die can liberate you from all your fears?
We take a trip through the ancient world on death, with generals, slaves, philosophers, playwrights, painters, and pharaohs, and The Grim Reaper.
What Does Memento Mori Mean?
Memento mori, translated from Latin, means “remember you have to die.” The idea originated in Rome, but the symbolism of memento mori has been in use since times more ancient. Memento mori is reminiscent of mortality: reminding us life is short, death is inevitable and unpredictable, and one must be ready to die.
This philosophical practice, apparently morbid but held in high regard, urged people to detach themselves from their earthly possessions and recognition. It reminded them of the fleeting nature of luxury and vanity, and the fact that no one could carry these with them once death claims their lives.
History of Memento Mori
1. Roman Roots of Memento Mori
Where did memento mori originate?
Ancient Rome had the tradition to hold a ‘triumphus’—a gala parade with a victorious general entering the city in a four-horse-chariot, preceded by captors and spoils taken in war, and followed by his troops. As they marched through the streets to offer a sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter, the public thronged the sides of the streets, shouting and rejoicing at their hero’s deeds.
The triumphus was the most cherished ambition of every Roman general because the senate did not grant every victor this honor. Of the many conditions, one had to have slain at least 5,000 of the enemy in a single battle. The triumph parade was a magnificent ceremony and could make any general feel like a god.
In the chariot, as legend has it, a slave stood close behind the jubilant general and every once in a while whispered into his ear these words:
“Remember you are but mortal.”
This grim reminder of the general’s mortal nature was to get him to take in the entire scene wisely and reasonably. So he does not forget all fame and glory is temporary, and treats the grand occasion with humility.
This custom was the origin story of the memento mori tradition.
2. Stoics And Memento Mori
Is memento mori Stoic?
Memento mori was not a tradition of the Early Stoa (Zeno to Antipater), or the Middle Stoa (Panaetius and Posidonius). It was the philosophers of late Stoa—the Roman Stoics—who took up the concept of memento mori and became its prominent exponents and practitioners. They used it to urge people to live virtuously without any delay because death will soon be upon them, and they will have no time left for doing good deeds.
The Stoics advised to see each day as a gift and stop wasting time on trivial and futile things because death already claims each day that passes. Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, all prominently talked about meditating on one’s own death.
The Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist Seneca advised we should “balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Epictetus, himself a former slave, often reminded his students of the slave whispering memento mori to the celebratory general. He told them they should remind themselves, every time they hugged or kissed their friends, wife, children, or brothers, of their mortality.
“When giving your child or wife a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal. ‘” — Epictetus.
Marcus Aurelius frequently reminded himself of death:
- Once: “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
- Then: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left, and live it properly.”
- And once again, “Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.”
3. Memento Mori And Christians
This idea of “keeping death in mind” spread with the growth of Christianity. In 2nd-century, the Christian writer Tertullian’s version of the triumphal parade describes the slave as whispering, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” (“Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you’re [only] a man.”).
In European devotional literature, Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) was the first Medieval text on dying and preparing for death, published around 1415, probably at the request of the Council of Constance, Germany. It offers practical advice on the rites and procedures of a good death and how to “die well.”
Ars Moriendi was a much-needed response by the Roman Catholic Church to the horrific effects of the Black Death. The first chapter of Ars Moriendi explains dying has a good side, and serves to console the dying person death is not something to be afraid of.
In The Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), the injunction 7:40 reads: “In all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.”
4. Memento Mori And Egyptians
Like the Romans, the Egyptians followed the philosophy of memento mori. The pyramids served as shrines to the pharaohs resting in their graves.
The pyramids also displayed the unique way the Egyptians remembered death. They devised ingenious methods to mummify the corpses, designed exquisite face masks, and built death chambers, to show their many ways to honor life even in death.
Memento Mori In Popular Culture
1. Memento Mori In Music And Dance
Memento mori was a genre of requiem and funeral music, and it had a rich traditional history in early European music. Jewelry, pens, belts, skulls, and coffin motifs inspired by memento mori became popular towards the end of the 16th century.
Another notable genre of memento mori is Danse Macabre (Macabre Dance or Dance of Death). It is a species of dramatic plays that spotlit the universality and inevitability of death. Traced back to the middle of the 14th century, in this, the Grim Reaper, a skeletal figure wearing a hooded robe and carrying a scythe, calls upon people from all walks of life to dance alongside the host to the grave.
The purpose was to remind them of the fragility of life and the futility of earthly glories. It was a memento mori, that death was coming for them, regardless of where they lived.
The Danse Macabre also found expression in fine art, and many murals, frescoes, and paintings celebrated it. One of the most famous paintings on the theme is the “Triumph of Death” in the cemetery of Pisa, painted between 1450 and 1500. Perhaps the oldest picture of the Dance of Death is the one at the Cemetière des Innocents at Paris (1425).
Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century, crafted a series of the “most marvelous woodcuts ever made” on Dance of Death. The first book edition, containing forty-one of Holbein’s woodcuts, came out in 1538.
2. Memento Mori In Literature
Among the best-known literary meditations on death in English are Sir Thomas Browne’s The Urn of Burial and Jeremy Taylor’s The Holy Living and The Holy Dying.
The Roman poet Horace used the phrase carpe diem (translated from Latin, it means “seize the day”) to tell people they should enjoy life while they can because no one is promised a tomorrow. In the eleventh poem of his Odes, published in 23 BCE, he wrote the injunction “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” which translates as “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.”
Epicurus, who lived around 300 years before Horace, philosophized on the idea of carpe diem. Epicurus believed that pleasure is the greatest good, and one should live a life of pleasures so they could attain a state of tranquility, or ataraxia, which allows them to be free from fears. The Epicurean way to a happy life is something we can achieve today, once we are ready. Epicureanism later became the inspiration for Horace.
The man who has learned to die has unlearned how to be a slave; he is above all power, or at least beyond its reach. What do prison and guards and locked doors mean to him? He has a free way out. There is only one chain that keeps us bound, the love of life, and even if this should not be rejected, it should be reduced so that if circumstances require nothing will hold us back or prevent us from being ready instantly for whatever action is needed.
Shakespeare wrote of death in many of his plays. Hamlet—Prince of Denmark explores death in its many aspects. The play begins with the appearance of the ghost and ends with several violent deaths. Hamlet contemplates suicide, develops an obsession with death, and ponders the transition from life to death as he looks at the court jester Yorick’s skull.
Holding up the skull, Hamlet realizes what becomes of even the most alive and vibrant of people after death-reduced to a hollow skull. Hamlet finally accepts death, without fear or longing, and points out “the readiness is all.”
3. Vanity, Vainglory, And Memento Mori
Perhaps the most notable art genre associated with memento mori is vanitas, which started emerging in the later years of the 15th century. They showed both vanity (a deep interest in appearance and achievements) and vainglory (excessive boastfulness vulgar display), and their futility at death.
The vanitas art form focused on still life containing various symbols reminding the viewer of their mortality, and the worthlessness of earthly goods and worldly vanities. Mostly they carry the traditional memento mori symbols such as skulls, extinguished candles, withered flowers, books, hourglass, sundial, and musical instruments.
Some of the most famous paintings centering on death, fear of death, and memento mori are:
- “Pyramid of Skulls” by Paul Cézanne, 1901
- “Skull with Burning Cigarette” by Vincent van Gogh, 1885
- “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya, c. 1819-1823
- “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi 1614-1620
- “Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone)” by Frida Kahlo, 1938
- “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli, 1781
- “Skull” by Albrecht Dürer, 1521.
- “Young Man with a Skull” by Frans Hals, c. 1626
- “Still-Life with a Skull” by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1671
- “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1891
4. The Day of The Dead
The Day of The Dead (Día de los Muertos) is celebrated all throughout Mexico, and some other Latin American countries as Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala. Every November 1st and 2nd, they build altars and decorate them with marigolds, candles, incense, food, and water, to honor their deceased family members.
It originated with the Mayans (250 to 900 CE) and the Aztecs (1345 to 1521 CE). They believed it was the death a person got, and not whether they were good or evil in life, that dictated where the soul will go to in the afterlife.
The Mayans held those who died by suicide, sacrifice, in battle, and during childbirth, their souls went straight to heaven. Similarly, the Aztecs held the souls of soldiers slain in battle, and women who died giving birth, traveled with the sun into the heavens. While the souls of those Aztecs, who died a normal death, had to pass through nine levels of the underworld.
Based on these beliefs, those ancient civilizations developed a rich ritual around the cult of ancestors and death. In later days, they transformed into the current Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. In 2008, UNESCO added it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Since 1994, the citizens of Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico, celebrate the Festival de Calaveras or the “Festival of the Skulls.” It draws from the Day of the Dead traditions.
In antiquity, life was more violent, and death was much closer, than today. The wars, diseases, famines, and tyrannical rulers were the realities reminding people the Grim Reaper was lurking somewhere nearby.
Looking back at those times, it seems memento mori was a cruel burden on their brief lives. Their memories needed to erase deaths, even if for a while, as they lived within a pervasive doom.
Over the centuries. memento mori seems to have disappeared from our social consciousness. Today, we expect to live much longer than those ancient Roman generals. Still, death remains as unpredictable as in those times. And we yet remain unprepared for death in times of a modern pandemic.
Memento mori reminds us the great equalizer, death, awaits us. Of course, we all die in the end. We all also suffer and rejoice in our very own ways through life to reach death. So, what do we gain by repeating it in our minds?
Perhaps this: in loving those we care for while remembering they would die one day, we hug them deeper, cherish them more, and love them with our full presence. Because beyond death, ours or theirs, what remains are those memories.
So, memento mori and carpe diem!
Why is Memento Mori important?
Memento mori is to remember one’s own mortality, the shortness of life, and the unpredictability of death. To remind oneself they have to die helps one to:
1. accept death as non-intimidating
2. appreciate their relationships more
3. be grateful for the things they have
4. let go of the grudges and regrets
5. try learning/experiencing new things
6. work harder towards their life goals
7. avoid hubris, anger, egoism, vanity
8. see the transience of wealth and fame
9. not delay carrying out their duties
10. be mindful in everything they do
11. focus on the processes and actions
12. disconnect from the future results
13. accomplish more, live better, love deeper
What did the Stoics say on death? Find out here: 21 Unforgettable Stoic Quotes On Death.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, chief editor of its blog. Writes popular-science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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