Memento Mori

I was sorting through pictures and found several from 2015, when I saw three different Totentanz scenes, one in a museum and two in situ, still in the churches or charnal houses where they had first been painted. They are one of many forms of memento mori, reminders of death, created to encourage viewers to remember that they, too, are mortal and will pass from this life. What waits beyond? Well . . . That’s why one is to meditate and consider one’s deeds and thoughts.

Some saints are depicted with memento mori. St. Jerome is often shown with either a lion, or a skull, or both.

Remember, that Thou Art Man . . . Used under Creative Commons Fair Use. original source at:

Many years ago, I read a humorous comparison of the US and Great Britain. The author argued that one large difference was that Americans assumed that death was optional, and if you keel over, you did something wrong. You should have eaten more bran, or jogged, or taken more multi-vitamins, or something. Ever since reading that, I have moments where I wonder if the author was a bit closer to the truth than I gave him or her credit for. Certainly, when I listen to popular medical news, or read articles about this or that nostrum, or how “a cure for cancer” is just around yet another corner, a slightly tired smile appears on my face. Or when I hear solemn intonations of Covid numbers, almost like monks chanting vesper psalms, I wonder, “Don’t you remember that death is not optional?”

At the moment, life has a 100% mortality rate. There might be four? exceptions to that, depending on one’s belief system, but otherwise, everyone who has lived on this sublunary sphere has died of something or other. Awkward that. At least, awkward for those who insist that age and mortality can be postponed indefiniately. (A friend of the family has spent considerable worry and funds trying not to age, seeking medical solutions for what comes from the passing of time. I sometimes want to tell this person, “Look, you’re just getting older! Accept it and go on with life.” But I won’t.)

“Pssst. More carrot juice won’t cure this.” Memento Mori. Fair Use:
“As we are, so shall you be!” Fair Use:

Many of the Totentanzen include the Holy Roman Emperor, a pope, cardinals, kings, queens, and everyone down to beggars and servants. No one is safe from death. The pattern of the people dancing with the dead comes from the Black Death, at least as best as art historians can tell. The command to remember the coming of the afterlife has been part of several religions before that, but the artistic design first appears in the late 1300s, and bloomed in the 1400s-1500s. It fades away for a while, but returned to popular art in the Twentieth Century with the world wars and aftermath. There is no confidence or joy in a Totentanz, unless it is the grinning skulls of the half-decayed dancers, laughing at the follies of the living.

“As we are, so shall you be.” All of us die. Most of us don’t spend too much time thinking about it, most days. Some subcultures are more interested in death than others, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. The Goth subculture has been blamed for suicides, and looking funereal is part of the culture, at least for some. The Victorians romanticized death, not so much dying, and sometimes seem to have wallowed in grieving and funerals and the trappings the living sported around the dead. Women, at least those who could afford it, had mourning dresses, and social convention commanded certain periods of strict mourning, half-mourning, then returning to mourning on anniversaries of people’s death. When you see how much a good black dress cost, yipes. The poor and working folk didn’t have the luxury of wearing black all the time, like Queen Victoria and the heroines of Gothic novels. And black shows fuzz, fur, dust, and a lot of other things. Not coal soot, no, but black also fades.

There are times when I look at parts of current society and wonder if I’m seeing a Totentanz of sorts, but reversed. People with no faith in an afterlife, often with no children or no hope for grandchildren, claw and fight to protect “my legacy,” “my creation.” They cannot or will not accept that life always ends in death, and that immortality doesn’t come from a piece of legislation, or a work of digital art, or a social cause. A frenetic, wild dance of proclamations and “you dare not touch my creation, my legacy!” fills the air. They stare at the dancing skeletons around them and refuse to accept the natural course of things. One more medical procedure, one special cosmetic pomade, and youth will return or at the very least death will retreat.

I do not seek out death. I don’t long for it, or at least have not since the last time I was really, really “Oh G-d take me home please because everything hurts even things that can’t hurt and I’m sick as a dog” sick with influenza. A little Edgar Allen Poe goes a long way. But I’m not terrified of it, either. I’ve nodded to the Grim Reaper in passing, but he’s kept going, thus far.

Memento mori. You don’t have to keep a skull on your desk (although there are moments when I’ve considered it, either natural or artificial. I have a raven instead.) We’re not all St. Jerome, for which I give thanks. He didn’t sound like a fun guy to hang out with – a bit too intense for my tastes. But a little less society-wide panic about, well, whatever everyone is supposed to panic about this week might be good. Would be good.

(If you have seen Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, you saw a Totentanz acted out.)


8 thoughts on “Memento Mori

  1. People who give you unsolicited health advice with the warning “or you’ll die young” get really uncomfortable if you cheerfully agree.

    Based on family history, my odds of developing Alzheimer’s or senile dementia approach unity. Long life isn’t the selling point they think it is. (And pointing that out is something they can’ have trouble with. It’s kind of entertaining.)

    • On my mother’s side, dementia hit Grandma in her late ’80s, and she passed away at 91. Mom is pushing 99, and she’s showing some of the signs. OTOH, on my father’s side, heart issues preclude Alzheimer’s. He died at 53, so my 69 years (with an iffy heart) is doing well.

      If I split the difference, I have a few years left. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. When I was a physical anthropology student, skulls on the desk were not an uncommon occurrence.

  3. Interesting points.
    There are so many who focus on the here and now, or who think this is all there is, that they seek to hold on in any way they can. As mentioned above, it is expensive and in the end useless.
    I’m glad to know that this life isn’t all there is and so I’m not afraid of death. But I’m certainly not going to do anything to hasten it!

  4. Death is light as a feather. Duty is heavier than mountains.
    Life is a venereal disease. It is transmitted by sex, and is 100% fatal.
    Baby don’t fear the Reaper.
    Cowards die a thousand deaths, heroes die but once.
    All men die, but not all truly live.

    I had the great good fortune to be able to visit the (second) grave of Saint Lazarus. It was quite moving to see the sepulchre where his bones once rested, under the church that he founded. (The French stole and then lost them ages ago.)

  5. Can’t dwell on it, just live our lives as well as we can. We don’t know how long we will be here, that is out of our control.

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