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Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die
It was common in the 14th to 18th centuries to feature Memento Mori symbols and or writings of Memento Mori upon ones final resting place. Back then, it was a lot easier to be fatally struck down with a disease or ill health and therefore, Memento Mori served as a reminder to all that death could arrive within the hour, so make the most of it. Couple this with strong religious beliefs, people would do everything in their power to ensure they would reach Heaven, which included placing final reminders upon their headstone as a reminder to all who would see. Please scroll down for Memento Mori Photo Gallery.
Memento Mori Symbols
I absolutely adore the art of Memento Mori and I do honestly think that this is an art form that is lost to us today. I remember being informed by someone older when I first started exploring graveyards that a skull and crossbones either represented a pirate if near to the coast or someone who had died of the plague. I believed this for years, but it’s not particularly true. A skull and crossbones is a reminder of what we will become, so live life for today. Centuries ago with the various plagues, it was expected that death was imminent, but with modern advances in medicine and life expectancy getting longer, does this mean that we shouldn’t be reminded that one day, death will catch up with us, so lets live life for today?
How many times do you hear people tell someone to do exactly this when a loved ones life has been cut short unexpectedly?
Death is something that we cannot avoid and therefore we should remember to live our lives Memento Vivere as death may arrive within the next hour or day.
In these modern times, people don’t like to be reminded that death is heading our way, hence the lack of imagery in newer cemeteries. If you would like to read my thoughts on modern day cemeteries, please visit the Graveyard Symbols and Meanings Gallery.
Skull and Crossbones and Skeletons and Cadaver Stones
Cadaver stones were often laid over the tombs of the wealthy during the times of the plague (14th and 15th centuries). They are designed to show what happens to our bodies once buried, hence the opened funeral shroud. A number of creatures like newts, frogs, maggots etc can be seen feasting on the rotting flesh. No matter how much wealth a person had or what their status was in life, we are all equal in death. Latin phrases like Memento Mori (remember that you will die) and Memento Vivere (Remember to live) became popular around the same period of time.
Skull and crossbones on headstones are often seen with the following latin phrases: –
Memento Mori – Remember you will die
Memento Vivere – Remember to live
Vive Memor Leti – Live remembering death
Fugit Hora – Time Flies
Heasdstones in the 16th century usually displayed the deceased’s name, date of birth and date of death and either a skull, skull and crossbones or a skull gnawing on a femur. Usually the words ‘Here lies the body of‘ where placed before the name. The vision of the skull and the word ‘body’ summed up the expression that we are born to live, die and rot.
After doing some research, I found out that The Puritans of the 16th and 17th century had strong religious views following the Reformation in England. The Puritan belief was that only a select few could reach heaven and the remaining were doomed to be born, live, die and then rot. Those buried nearest to the alter within a church would make it to Heaven. This couldn’t last as the churches were running out of space, hence the dead being buried outside of the church walls, which led to headstones and artistic expression.
Cemetery Death Heads
During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death and the possibility that one could reach Heaven. With this changing attitude, imagery on the headstones began to soften. The skull was replaced with a cherub or soul effigy and the crossbones were replaced with wings or foliage. These are known as cemetery deathheads or headstone death heads and you can see some of my favourite examples on my Cemetery Death Heads gallery page.
Winged Skulls and Hour Glasses
Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depicts the ascent to Heaven. Therefore a winged skull is a perfect representation of the ascension into Heaven.
The hourglass seen on a lot of headstones within Greyfriar’s and St Cuthbert’s graveyards in Edinburgh symbolise that time is passing rapidly and we are one hour closer to our death. If the hourglass depicted on a headstone is on it’s side, it usually represents that the deceased had their life cut short unexpectedly.
Memento Mori Headstone Photography
Memento Mori is a fascinating subject and I can’t wait to find more interesting Memento Mori headstones to photograph. If you know of any good ones, please let me know.
The first of my new videos features my Memento Mori photography and hopefully you will learn something about graveyard and cemetery art throughout the centuries. Memento Mori photography features lots of skull and crossbones, cadavers and death heads, but you will have to watch the video to find out more.
Please share this video and ask any questions you may have.