Memento Mori and Death in the Museum (Happy Halloween Part One)

Memento mori translates roughly to remember death, or perhaps especially remember you will die. It is a plea for all of us to pause every once in awhile to ponder our mortality; this brief life.

Vincent Laurensz, Memento Mori, 1656

Why would anyone want to do this, you might ask? Why would anyone do this rather than, say, eat a piece of cake, or go swimming, or watch reality TV? To my mind, the best answer comes from Wallace Stevens, who tells us:

“Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”

That piece of cake tastes good, but it is even better when you remember that you do not have infinite pieces of cake. Cake is perishable. Mostly, you are perishable.

So, humans learn to imagine death, and humans try to portray it. Humans pause– memento mori— and mourn not only for our loved ones, but for ourselves.

Sleep and Death, by Command of Apollo, Conveying the Body of Sarpedon (which is covered in a veil) to Lycia, 18th century

Death is, of course, unimaginable. Loss is unimaginable. But still we try.

The Death of Saint Joseph, Francesco Solimena, 1698 – 1700

And, really, in this trying we celebrate it. Many cultures have marked this particular week by observing All Souls Day, with Day of the Dead, with Halloween, as days dedicated to the idea of memento mori. How are you marking this week? Why not come into the museum?


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