Memento Mori and Me

Memento Mori is Latin for remembering the inevitability of death.

These ‘reminders’ are symbolic and can take many forms; paintings, sculptures, photographs, jewellery, sketches, prints, etchings and festivals like Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The symbols are numerous and can include, amongst others, a skull or a full skeleton representing death, a living individual; Men, Women and Children in varying scenarios (deathbed, in life, deceased), a marker of time.


As an osteoarchaeologist I’m surrounded by death on a daily basis, my workspace is full of skeletons (at the last count approx. 200 individuals were represented). At home, every available space I can find houses an animal bone or two, or three, or four (you get the idea). The garden is full of decomposing animal specimens (deaths occurred naturally; roadkill etc – not by my car I hasten to add!) so that I can create a comparative reference collection for my archaeological research.

As I’m writing this post in my room, I’ve realised this space is also full of death too; a life-sized plastic anatomical human skeleton resides behind my door. A plastic skeleton left over from a Halloween long ago hangs on my wall, a resin skull on my bookcase and a plastic one in the aquarium. Not to mention the numerous postcards and posters from exhibitions and books illustrating the human and animal skeleton. And then there’s my interest in Anatomy and the History of Medicine in a mesh of art and science (a blog post for the future) which ties in nicely with my developed interest in Memento Mori.


It’s only in this last year or so that I’ve become interested in Memento Mori. It started with snippets of information in my twitter feed from the likes of @ChirurgeonsAppr (tweets about the History of Medicine and Syphilis), @thanatos_net (tweets about Victorian post-mortem & mourning photography), @besslovejoy (tweets about dead things and history), with several others contributing too.


Then it really kicked off when I attended one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever been to; The Richard Harris Collection, Death: A Self-Portrait held at the Wellcome Collection. Five very different rooms packed full of Memento Mori art in varying mediums; Contemplating Death, The Dance of Death, Violent Death, Eros & Thanatos and Commemoration.


I spent several hours in the exhibition wondering at all the pieces, modern and old, and how they made me feel about Death, something I hadn’t really thought about even though I’ve immersed myself in it by choice. As an osteo I analyse skeletons to learn about the individual in life, and in a twisted opposite, the living have Memento Mori to remind us we all die eventually.

I came away from the exhibition with my own piece of Memento Mori in the form of a book and ideas to create my own art as well (when I get some spare time).

Here are a selection of my current 5 favourite pieces:

#1. Dance of Death. By Michael Wolgemut 1493. This is my favourite piece; to me it’s humorous, death doesn’t have to be depressing but at the end of the day, we will all dance to Deaths tune. In Richard Harris’ exhibition this image was displayed in the biggest book I’ve ever seen.

#2. The Doctor, The Girl and Death. By Ivo Saliger 1920. (Has nudity so I didn’t include this picture in the post)  This was a close second for me as I like the crossover of science and art, it reminded me of lost loved ones and the battle between life and death, but Death always wins the war.

#3. Vanitas Still Life with a Bouquet and a Skull. By Adriaen van Utrecht 1643. The use of colour drew me into this piece, the detail and the symbolism.

#4. Death, the final boundary of things. By Unknown c. 1570. I like the detail in this piece.

#5. When Shall We Meet Again. By Unknown. Date Unknown. This photograph, and the text on the blackboard behind it just interested me, unfortunately I don’t know much about the context of this photo.

I’ve created (unknowingly) my own version of #5 although maybe it is a bit ‘smiley’ in comparison…

My version of #5
My version of #5

I’m beginning to research Memento Mori further to create my own collection of favourites.

Do you have a favourite? If so let me know and maybe I’ll add it to my new Pintrest board to share my collection (I’ve only just started it, so it’s still a bit bare).

5 thoughts on “Memento Mori and Me”

  1. Like this Hayley! You’ll have to read my thesis once I’m done – this is what my research focuses on, plus more! What people did to their dead in medieval England post-deposition/after they had buried them is fascinating and far more extensive than people realise. I’ve already identified over 60 medieval ossuaries and how they were used as, in effect, memento mori.

    1. Thanks Jen! I’d love to read your thesis it sounds really interesting. I hadn’t even thought about medieval memento mori in the form of ossuaries. Can you recommend any reading around the subject? I’d like to learn more! Maybe I’ll write a series of posts on memento mori through the ages next.

      1. Can do! I’ll have an article soon in PastHorizons on this particular aspect of post-depositional disturbance and reverence of human skeletal remains, and I’ll send you some more specific reading too. Keep up the good work!

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