Memento Mori

Memento Mori is a term used to describe funerary art. Gravestones will often display this Latin phrase which translated means, Remember You Will Die, which is more of a warning to the living rather than the deceased upon whose headstone it is engraved.

Creative Commons License. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/4358919924
Creative Commons License. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/4358919924

This gravestone is located in St. Cuthbert Churchyard, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland. The natural patina is a result of moss growing in the damp climate with further erosion damage due to the extremes of the Scottish weather.

Erosion of the stone has obliterated much of the original inscription. The few words which are still legible state:
Who died 7th Feb
Aged 48 years
His children who
Also Thomas
Burgess

The symbols on this headstone represent several aspects of Memento Mori.

  • The winged effigy represents the deceased soul in flight.
  • The banner inscribed with the words Memento Mori is a reminder that death is unavoidable.
  • Skulls are a frequent feature on gravestones around the world appearing in various forms often with crossbones. It is a symbol of death, mortality, penitence, and sin.
  • Arched columns symbolize the passage to Heaven.
  • The drapes represent mourning and the partition between life and death.

Life is short, and shortly it will end;
Death comes quickly and respects no one,
Death destroys everything and takes pity on no one.
To death we are hastening, let us refrain from sinning.

In the second example the word Memento Mori is again visible. The reversed letter N is used. Although I have researched I can find no reason for the reversal. Many opinions offer illiteracy as a reason; however, it may simply be the letterform used during the period (e.g. the letters f, j, and v were used to represent s, i and u.)

Creative Commons License. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/4358905866/
Creative Commons License. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/4358905866/

Symbolism on this headstone represents the passage of time and the inevitability of death.
Bones: mortality and death
Hourglass: Passage of time
Rosettes: Brevity of earthly existence.

Death like an overflowing stream
Sweeps us away our life’s a dream
An empty tale a morning flowr,
Cut down and witherd in an hour. 1797

The third example once again denotes mortality and death with the symbols of the skull and bones.

Creative Commons License. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/4358903270

A skull represents death and mortality
A single bone is symbolic of death and decay.

Our life is ever on the wing
And death is ever nigh
The moment when our life begins
We all begin to die. 1791

Note: Did you notice that the skulls in the photos bear scars?

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