“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” (“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”) – From the Roman Catholic liturgy, based on Genesis 3:19, traditionally spoken on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Yesterday I had a post in praise of the latest Marvel Comics Netflix series, The Punisher. There is a moment in the series when another character sees Frank Castle, the Punisher himself, spray painting the iconic skull image onto the front of his bullet proof vest. He says to Frank, “You know what that is? That’s a Memento Mori.”
Nothing like a little Latin with your pop culture.
What is a Memento Mori exactly? Literally, a reminder of death. Of course, The Punisher wears it to let the bad guys know what’s coming for them. But in art history a Memento Mori was used not so much as a judgment upon others but as a reminder to oneself. Most often in the form of a skull or skeleton, these were works of art meant to lead the viewer to considering their own mortality, which in turn would lead to humility and thankfulness to God. The concept of the Memento Mori goes a long way back in the history of Christianity and can be seen in many churches and cathedrals, monasteries and covents. It is a common motif in Western culture.
I came upon a blog called Funeral Zone that had this to say of these reminders of mortality: “Memento mori primarily had a moral and religious purpose: to remind its owner or viewer that the afterlife awaited, and to not be overtly attached to material pleasures, in light of the prospect of divine judgment.”
In our popular culture, skulls and skeletons are Halloween decorations or used to convey some kind of badass image or played up for comedy. It is interesting, however, that though we don’t consciously use them as reminders of mortality anymore, they’re still with us, almost impossible to ignore, popping up in many different places and forms.
Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to be reminded that we are all destined to die. We seem to be people driven to do whatever we can to never think about it, to worship at the altar of eternal youth and beauty instead. But wouldn’t we all be better off, more humble, more aware of the preciousness of each day, if we were more aware of how little time we each had on this earth?
I realized after I had looked into the history of the Memento Mori that I created one myself that now hangs in the TV room in my basement. It is a mosaic I made from craft foam after I saw a similar mosaic from the third century with a similar sentiment recently discovered in Turkey:
If you want to read more about the history of the Memento Mori, check out the link to the article I’ve quoted above from Funeral Zone: