- The Dance of Death

What is a Memento Mori

A Reminder of Our Mortality

A reminder of how short life is

"Memento mori" is a Latin phrase which means "remember that you will die." Its origins go back to classical Rome when it was the practice for victorious generals celebrating a public triumph to have a slave follow them and whisper "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!" ("Look around you and remember that you are only a man!") into the ear, as a reminder to remain humble in the face of transient success because all worldly achievements must eventually yield to death.

Memento Mori

However, during classical antiquity, the original meaning of the phrase had been distorted into a sort of Roman version of YOLO (you only live once). It was associated with the Latin phrase "Carpe diem!" (Seize the Day) which exhorted people to live and be merry while they could, because life is transitory. As such it was more of an encouragement to hedonism and pleasure than an admonition.

The concept of memento mori was altered after and on account of the introduction of Christianity. Given Christianity's emphasis on judgment after death, memento mori became once again an admonition - this time not against vanity, but as a warning to live a good life because Death and the judgment that would follow were never far away.

In the engraving below, there is a skull with an hour glass on top representing the passage of time. The caption above reads memento mori, or remember that you will die. The caption on the bottom reads "Finis coronat opus," a Latin maxim meaning "The end crowns the work." This phrase suggests that the goal gives value to the labor that produced it, but also that the end of life is the final chapter in one's life work.

Another Memento Mori - A Reminder of Death

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was fashionable among the higher classes to own a human skull, sometimes elaborately decorated with precious stones or gold, to remind the owner that he too would one day die. In today's culture, mememnto moris tend to be less morbid; but the skull motif is still prevalent and can be found in the form of shot glasses or Mexican skeleton figurines celebrating the Day of the Dead. The Dance of Death is itself a sort of memento mori, acting as a reminder that death awaits us all.

The mememo mori reminds us that life is fleeting.

Memento Mori - remember that you are mortal

Below is an interesting 18th century print that shows the provides a subtle reminder of the relationship between life and death. Look at the image one way and you see a skull. Look more closely and you will see two lovers leaning out of a window which is really the skull's eye sockets and mouth. It is meant to convey that in life there is death and in death there is life. We must never forget and must live our lives by honoring the precious gift that we have been given.

Skull Illusion
Credit: A young man and a young woman looking through an opening in a wall; alternatively, a human skull. Lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein

The Dance of Death

Meaning of the Dance of Death

The Dancing Mania

The Dancing Mania

Scene from the Dance of Death

Scene from the Danc of Death