Throughout history, death has held humanity at the grip of fear…and fascination. For thousands of years people have tried to understand the many reasons why we expire, studied cold corpses in order to avoid death, and have even tried to make elixirs and potions created through ancient mysticism in order to cheat death. Some have prolonged their lives through various means, but none have actually succeeded in stopping their biological clock and freezing their mortality.
The term Memento Mori is translated in three ways “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die” or “Remember you will die” (Wikipedia) and describes an art form that has not only survived since antiquity but flourishes even today. It was a way of representing judgment and a form of demonstrating ones own mortality. Based mainly on superstition, the concept of Memento Mori blossomed with dark, sometimes frightening images such as bats, skulls, and death himself as a cloaked skeletal figure sporting a scythe.
In many cultures, death is the art and it arose out of necessity. The famous Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic is a famous example of art meeting the needs of necessity. By definition, an ossuary is the final resting place of human bones. In this case, along with many others, the bones are arranged in display, some even are dressed in their clothes for viewing, representing a mass grave site.
Many others, however, embrace death as a way of life and even glorify the afterlife as a desirable destination. Some see human bodies as works of art…living or dead. While some move on, others cling to their dearly departed loved ones. History is littered with these types of characters, mournful of the loves they lost prematurely or unexpectedly.
Queen Victoria is the most famous example of mourning in modern times. She mourned Prince Albert for the remainder of her 64 year reign by having his clothes placed out every morning and wearing black for the rest of her life. Prince Albert died in 1861 so Victoria mourned for the next 40 years giving her the nickname “the Widow of Windsor”. Needless to say, the influence this period had on her empire gives Queen Victoria the distinction one of histories greatest mourners.
This influence included:
2: The invention of photography gave us photographs of the recently dead and their mourners. Post mortem photos were very popular, especially for children.
3. The understanding that hair survives after death and many pieces were made from the decease’s hair
These all were, of course, a symbol of comfort for a Victorian.
A more recent popularity is the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. This is a celebration of the dead, lively and warm with images of Catrinas (the female skeletal figures of the Lady of the Dead) and dancing skeletons. The families pray and remember their loved ones by offering their favorite foods and flowers. So you see, not all Memento Mori has to be completely sorrowful.
A much earlier type of celebration can be found in the 15th century with the Danse Macabre is which death, personified as a dancing skeleton summons all walks of life to join in and remember that, no matter what your station, earthly matters are of little consequence when you die.