Memento mori – remember you will die…

Memento mori – remember you will die… What does that say to you?

Does it sound fatalistic or liberating? Either way, it’s a powerful phrase. Examining what emotional response the words create is an insightful exercise. Death isn’t good or bad, it simply is, like night/day or hot/cold. It’s a force of nature, not a punishment or reward.

Mortality can be an amazing motivational tool or a depressing immobiliser. The ability to see and accept the duality of life and death has followed humans through history.

  • In ancient Rome, one powerful general had a servant follow him on victory parades whispering memento mori to keep his ego contained. He realised that even the most successful victory never changed the fact human life is finite.
  • Christianity in the middle ages used the phrase to frighten the public into following their rules. Every corner of Europe used it to emphasise that the afterlife would be an enjoyable paradise forever if you were sin fee or a flaming pit if wicked.
  • Karl Marx used the phrase to illustrate that rich, poor, famous, anonymous, beautiful or disfigured – all face the same end; we have more in common than what sets us apart.
  • Buddhism, Zen, and Islam all have variations of the phrase to remember death.

As an artist, I use the phrase to ward off fear and procrastination. It reminds me to ask what do I need to say, do, create TODAY. There may not be a tomorrow, so use the time I have.  What inspiration is burning in me that will never see the light of day if I don’t make it?

The ancient Greek philosopher Seneca put it succinctly – when you go to bed you may not wake up in the morning and if you do, you may not sleep another night. It’s a humbling and invigorating thought. Is my fear of talking to galleries worth not having my work seen? Is my fear of making a lumpy figure worth not making any sculptures?  Is my fear of writing a bad plot worth the story never being told?

My memory can be spotty, so I use small pieces of art to keep ideas fresh in my mind.  Memento mori is such an emotional idea though too much would be depressing, therefore I don’t fill my home with skulls or skeletons. I use a coffee mug. It’s a simple reminder as I start my day to use my time wisely.

My mug designs are available to buy if this post has inspired you to begin collecting your own pieces of memento mori, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t create your own.

Carpe diem and YOLO are popular phrases also, but usually, these take a slightly different approach to the idea. They often promote the hedonistic pleasures of the moment rather than the long term. I’ve heard it used to justify binge drinking and splurges in spending so I prefer memento mori. To me, it feels more restrained, more elegant. It’s a reminder that although there is every possibility you could live to be a hundred, you are a human, not a god. Do what you can, when you can and accept that it will all end someday.  

Now get out there and create. Only you can release the masterpiece growing inside your soul.

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