“The thought came into its own with Christianity, whose strong emphasis on divine judgment, Heaven, Hell, and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness. Many memento mori works are products of Christian art.
In the Christian context, the memento mori acquires a moralizing purpose quite opposed to the Nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink) theme of Classical antiquity. To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an invitation to focus one’s thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife.
A Biblical injunction often associated with the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate’s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40, “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.”)
This finds ritual expression in the rites of Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed upon the worshipers’ heads with the words “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” (RJ)
Ash Wednesday (St Mary of Mortlake)
The Puritans thought that art was sinful as it drew the faithful away from God. However, portraits were seen as historical documents.
Thomas Smith self portrait
The Buddhist version of the memento mori phrase is “maranasati.” Marana means ‘death’ and sati means ‘remember’.
“Reflections on death and impermanence are the very cornerstone of all spiritual paths. Buddhist teachings encourage awareness of the fact that we could die at any moment. This helps us to maintain awareness of the preciousness of life and encourages us to sort out our priorities.
From a Buddhist perspective, the root cause of all our suffering is the fact that we do not take enough time through prayer and meditation to come to know ourselves — our true nature, our enlightened, “Buddha” mind. Beyond our ordinary everyday mind is our true mind, which radiates the qualities of tremendous light or brilliance (wisdom) and great warmth (love and compassion).
This transformation of mind is not only essential preparation for death, but it allows us to see more clearly in life in such as way that our very perceptions transform and circumstances will appear differently.” (Huff Post)
Zen and Samurai:
“A great deal of samurai thought was based on the teachings of Zen Buddhism, particularly the necessity of finding inner calm. Samurai followed a code called Bushido which taught followers to embrace the possibility of death at any moment. This principle partly came from Zen Buddhism which emphasizes the necessary impermanence of all material bodies. Zen Buddhism also taught samurai practitioners to clear their minds of all thoughts before battle, helping them overcome fear and distraction.” (Opposing Views)
The Mexican festival of ‘Dia de Muertos’ ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrates death in a much more exuberant way.
“It is celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul’s & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honouring their deceased loved ones.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, the festivities are taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to the village band and reminisce about their loved ones. Tradition keeps the village close.” (Mexican Sugar Skull)
“The days of the dead are truly a celebration of life. When children dance with caricatures of death, eat skull sugar molds and learn to respect that life is brief, they learn there is a circle to life and to not fear death and then are free to enjoy and appreciate every moment.” (UNM)
Day of the Dead altar
Day of the Dead graveyard festivities
The Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada was inspired by the Day of the dead festivities.
“Dhikr al-mawt” is the phrase which means ‘remembrance of death’.
“Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:
Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “Remember more often the destroyer of pleasures – death.”” (Sunnah)
Death and Religion in a Changing World – Kathleen Garces-Foley