Memento mori

A memento mori is something, especially an object, that serves as a reminder of mortality. Memento mori tend to be ominous or frightening items; for example, skulls and representations of skulls have traditionally served as memento mori. But the term can also denote less ominous things, such as a novel depicting the passage of time, a life insurance policy, or a seniors’ discount at the movie theater. The phrase is also occasionally used in its original English sense, as a verb phrase meaning, essentially, “remember death.”

Memento mori is Latin; it translates literally to “remember to die.” It entered English in the 16th century and gained its modern sense almost immediately. Shakespeare, for one, used it in his 1598 play Henry IV, Part 1:

Bardolph: Why, Sir John, my face does you no harm.

Falstaff: No, I’ll be sworn; I make as good use of it as many
a man doth of a Death’s-head or a memento mori: I
never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire and
Dives that lived in purple; for there he is in his
robes, burning, burning.

As a noun, memento mori is both singular and plural, though a few scattered instances of the plural memento moris are easily found. Like most long-established loan phrases in English, memento mori is usually unitalicized in modern use.

Examples

This dress … only served to make Mrs. G. appear more ghastly, more like a faded picture which had stepped out of its frame. She was a perpetual memento mori. [Our village, Mary Russell Mitford (1829)]

[T]he horsemen of this regiment were dressed in black, and wore on their foreheads that symbol of corruption, a death’s head ; each was a living memento mori. [The History of the Seven Years War in Germany, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz (1843)]

Many such memorial rings were designed to serve the double purpose of a memorial of the dead and a memento mori for the living. [Aspects of death and correlated aspects of life in art, epigram, and poetry, Frederick Parkes Weber (1918)]

Just because you have it figured about life — everybody dies — there’s still no reason to turn yourself inside out, to go through the world skeleton first, to make every morning shave a memento mori. [Boswell, Elkin Stanley (1964)]

Manhattan strikes the future observer the way ancient Athens or ancient Rome strikes us now—as fragmentary, enigmatic, a memento mori at once powerful and poignant. [New York Times (1997)]

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. [Yareah Magazine (2013)]

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