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The Meaning of Memento Mori

A lot of our products are listed as memento mori objects, small items or tokens that are meant as a reminder or a warning of death. While it sounds very dark and morbid, that isn’t the true purpose of carrying a memento mori item. The real reason we carry memento mori items is not to keep us in constant fear of death or dying, but to remind us that life is fragile–that we need to make the most of every moment we have and take all opportunities we have to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.

The Latin phrase memento mori is deeply rooted in the histories of many great civilizations. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, pondered on whether proper practice of philosophy is only about dying and being dead. The Vikings attribute a proverb to Odin, the God of War, that states “Animals die, friends die, and thyself, too, shall die; but one thing I know that never dies, the tales of the one who died.”

Memento mori has most prominently been displayed over the years in funeral art and architecture, particularly in Europe. However, this healthy fascination with death and dying is also reflected in the Mexican festival, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Many world cultures have had or still do have a way of welcoming death into everyday life, helping individuals and communities to prepare for the inevitable and to cherish the moments we have in this life.

Our modern society, especially here in America, seems to be lacking this remembrance and normalization of death. A while ago I read a book titled Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler. It speaks a lot to bioethics and aging, which to me, a geriatric social worker, was extremely interesting. A part that stuck out to me in this book, that I think will resonate with everyone reading this, is that death is no longer a part of life in America.

One anecdote described how funerals used to be held in the family living room or parlor room. Often the deceased relative would be left in the open casket for multiple days, so all who wanted to could pay their respects. Children would still play and run around, all while their grandmother lay dead in the center of the room. This was normal for the time. Now, our dying relatives are placed in nursing homes or hospitals, kept away from people going about their days. Death has become very separate from life for most of us, causing a more difficult grieving process.

Memento mori needs to be reintroduced to our way of life. We should welcome these daily reminders that death is all around us, that life is fragile, and that we will all die one day. After all, how can we properly seize the day if we don’t remember that we only have so many days in this life?

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1 comment

  • I remember when I was a kid I was asked to do something, I said I will do it tomorrow and my Nan said as if tomorrow is a given. I always remember that and never take it for granted now.


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