Memento mori is a phrase that translates from Latin as ‘remember that you will die’. Although it may sound morbid to our modern ears, to the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers reflecting on mortality was intended to invigorate life, and to create priority and meaning. Each day was viewed as precious. They were reminded not to waste time on the trivial and vain, but instead to live each day to its fullest as if it were the last.
About 2000 years ago, Seneca the Greek wrote “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time”.
Today, the reality of death is too depressing for our culture that desperately tries to deny it. Yet by doing so we avoid the reality of life. It would benefit us to think differently, for, as the essayist Michel de Montaigne put it, “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave”.
In the art of painting, sculpture and photography, memento mori was used to remind the viewer of their own mortality, and of the shortness and fragility of human life. A typical portrayal might have shown death and the passing of time, such as a skull with an hour glass or an extinguished candle. Later on the theme of the vanitas was introduced into art, presenting luxury
items like fruit and flowers, wine, musical instruments and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and objects. These themes were popular during seventeenth century religious Europe, when many believed that life on earth was a preparation for the afterlife.
In 2020, the year of the global lockdowns, I made a few photographic studies of ‘dead’ organic objects that I found on my Spanish farm and in the nearby forests: animal skulls, chestnuts, fruit, flowers and wild fungi.
In English the phrase ‘still-life’ is used. The Spanish equivalent is ‘naturaleza muerta’ (literally dead nature). I find the contradiction interesting. What is more accurate to describe such photographic studies, life that is still, or nature that is dead?
For me, death is not something to be feared. While the absence of a loved one will bring sadness, death of the physical body itself can only be regarded as the completion of life in this material realm, while the actual consciousness of the body, the spirit or soul, moves on to another realm - one that we cannot fully comprehend until, perhaps, the day of our departure.