The Latin phrase memento mori translates in English, roughly, to "Remember your mortality" ... Death is indeed an inevitable part of life; this phrase serves as a reminder that though we may achieve victory in the moment we must remember that the potential to fall from such heights is always potentially at hand, and that because life is inevitably accompanied by death we must embrace every the fullness of every moment.
Through the ages memento mori has been a recurrent theme running through Western literature. Circa 429BCE, Sophocles wrote, in Oedipus the King, "Let every man in mankind's frailty Consider his last day; and let none Presume on his good fortune until he find Life, at his death, a memory without pain." Horace, in 23 BCE, wrote in one of his Odes (Book I, Ode XXVIII-1), "But a common night awaiteth every man, and Death's path must be trodden once for all."
Tertullian, considered the founder of Latin Christianity, in his 197 AD work Apologeticus, admonishes the reader, "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!" Mindful of our mortality, we are wise to make use of every moment while living; with life comes death. And circa 1080, an author named Noker wrote, beautifully:
Now reflect, o women and men, upon where you will be journeying!
You love this fragile, brittle world and think you will always be here.
(But) no matter how lovely it seems to you, you will have it only for a short while.
No matter how much you would like to live for a long time, you will have to leave this life.
A 14th century Catalan poem, Dansa de la Mort, says, "Toward death we hasten, Let us sin no more, sin no more." In Medieval Europe, the salvation message of Christianity brought with it the reminder of death, as well. From the Christian point of view, the promised resurrected, perfected life through Christ can come about only after earthly physical death. Ash Wednesday's rituals of smearing ashes on one's forehead serve as a tangible reminder that life is but temporary and thus it is the eternal afterlife to which one must pay most attention. The Bible is replete with examples of this emphasis on memento mori. Isaiah 22:13, for instance, states "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" And in the New Testament, Christ's answer to his apostles, when asked what a man must do to follow him, was to give away all worldly possessions and follow after Truth, the Christ.
Danse macbre imagery began to adorn cemeteries and churches in the 1400s, particularly as the Black Death brought sickness and death to the door of nearly every home in Europe. The imagery featured individuals from all stations of life being called similarly by death, another reminder that along with life inevitably comes death, and even those of highest station in this life cannot escape death's cold call. In the 15th century European tombs began to incorporate the concept of memento mori into their architecture. Cadaver tombs, which convey imagery of the deceased individual's decaying corpse, began to adorn wealthy people's graves, a practice that was carried over to Puritan tombs in the United States.
Clocks and other timepieces have for centuries been inscribed with the lines from Horace's Ode and often adorned with the symbolism of skulls or skeletons. Mary, Queen of Scots, owned a watch made of a crafted silver skull on which was engraved Horace's lines. Clocks throughout Europe, in particular, have featured the phrase tempus fugit, or "time is fleeting," many having symbols of death, such as skeletons, striking the gong on the hour.
Memento mori has been the theme of many musical works, including requiems and funeral music, especially among those written for the Roman Catholic Church, and continuing into modern times. An Internet search of today's music turns up a plethora of songs titled "Memento Mori," a band with that name and an online radio station featuring "memento mori music," altogether spanning the globe of musical genres and languages.
The Mexican Day of the Dead festival, Dia de la Muertos, particularly emphasizes the theme memento mori; used in praying for those who have died to be allowed into heaven, rosaries or prayer beads often make use of skulls, and artwork commemorating the day often features macabre figures.
Memento mori has been conceptualized in art and architecture throughout the world. Works of this genre that serve to remind people of their own mortality include such classics as "The Dance of Death" by Michael Wlgemut, created in 1493, and Thomas Smith's 1680 "Self-Portrait," in which he sits, alive, with his hand resting on a skeleton. Many works of this genre are found in Christian art.
One example of modern day incorporation of the theme memento mori can be found at Casa Codognato, an art and jeweler's shop in Venice. First opened in 1866 by Simeone Codognato to feature antiques, paintings and objects d'art, Codognato's eclecticism reflects well the concept of memento mori. Today, Casa Codognato, described as "a distinguished island in a city whose heart has tended to erode," is now managed by Simeone's great-grandson, Attilio Codognato, and continues to feature "Italian archeological goldsmithing," incorporating skulls into beautiful settings of metals and precious stones, tangible examples of memento mori.
In fact, some would suggest Venice itself perhaps embraces memento mori more than any other city as home, throughout history, to great musicians, writers, philosophers, artists, sculptors, poets and citizens who have understood that life must be lived today for tomorrow we die, that to pursue passion and truth, and to embrace beauty and sensual delights, are of themselves worthwhile undertakings, as we will never again live this moment.