Death Through The Ages
What is memento mori?
Literally, the phrase means “remember your mortality.” Here at MSCo, it’s one of our most popular Latin phrases. On a larger scale, it’s a Latin phrase that rose to popularity in the medieval period and inspired multiple cultural, philosophical, literature, and art movements over the years. Artists in 17th century Europe were especially focused on the subject and painted many still-lifes on the theme, full of skulls and snuffed candles and other symbols of mortality and the fragility of life. Walk through any art museum, and you’ll see many works showcasing human life struggling with death, metaphorically and literally.
Why would a phrase that means “remember you must die” resonate so strongly with so many people? At first glance, such a mentality seems grisly and morbid - obsession with death has never been deemed a healthy outlook on life. However, the phrase is intended to give a positive perspective on the passage of time and how best to spend it.
Dealing With Death
Looking back through history, art, and literature, it seems that humanity has always had a love-hate relationship with death and its imagery. Graves have long been marked with skulls as a reminder of the penultimate stage of decay, pirates carried flags with skulls and crossbones to strike fear into their victims and enemies, and even cave drawings have depictions of death, both animal and human.
In direct contrast, humans treat our dead with equal parts reverence and disgust. The pharaohs of old commanded that their bodies be preserved, their skeletons kept covered. Ancient Vikings cremated the fallen and the passed, reducing everything to ash and scattering that reminder of mortality to the wind. Even modern-day funerals with open caskets have the deceased arranged as if they are merely sleeping.
Original Memento Mori Pendant, Sterling Silver
It is difficult to come to terms with the idea of not being alive one day. From our first breath, our only goal is to stay alive. Our parents and caretakers teach us the business of living - meeting our needs and avoiding danger. Very rarely are we taught the business of dying early in life, and so that lesson nearly always comes as a shock. Learning that human life comes to an end just like all life on earth is a world-rocking revelation for an individual.
Facing Death Fearlessly
As a species, humanity spent so much of our development focusing on surviving - death was omnipresent and imminent. As time went on, we learned how to live longer through technology, agriculture, and community. Discoveries and progress in modern medicine have extended our life expectancy even further. Death faded into the background, no longer an immediate, constant threat. But learning how to die is a necessary key to learning how to live.
Without remembering that life can end at any moment, how are we supposed to truly enjoy every moment? Without accepting death as a reality at the beginning, how are we able to say “I am not afraid of death” at the end? We cannot learn how to live truly, fiercely, and joyfully if we don’t know how to die fearlessly and gracefully.
So in one sense, the Latin translation of “learning to die” could be memento mori. The phrase means to teach us how to spend our time wisely on worthwhile things, and therefore how to be able to die with grace and no regrets. If you are able to live every day as if there is no tomorrow, then that is the ultimate expression of memento mori. You would be able to greet death without fear, confident in the knowledge that you are not leaving anything unfinished or undervalued behind.
You will learn to live well by learning to die.