Reclaiming the Catholic Sense and Use of Memento Mori

Memento mori are remembrances of our mortality. If one takes a stroll through the papal basilicas or various churches of Rome, Europe or parts of the colonial Catholic new world, one will find constant references to such things, whether on funerary monuments showing the angel of death, whether simple skulls and skeletons or what not. In point of fact, one can find entire crypts and and chapels dedicated to these themes. In the course of history we saw vestments ornamented with them for Requiem Masses and All Souls, we saw altar frontals, processional banners, candlesticks, paintings and more.

Tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandi in the Roman church of S. Pietro ad Vincoli showing the angel of death with its scythe to harvests souls. 

Funeral pall with traditional memento mori by Sacra Domus Aurea

Unfortunately since the later 19th century we've seen a much more, shall we say, "sanitized' and sentimentalized form of religion that has increasingly put these symbolic representations aside. This progressively culminated in the liturgical trends of the mid to later 20th century which saw even the liturgical colour black resisted and put aside (in preference for white) and an even further fixation against what was termed "negative theology" by progressive theologians. Case in point, how often today does one hear the poor souls preached on? How often purgatory or the four last things? Running into teaching on these things is about as rare as running into a cappa magna and yet they continue to be Catholic doctrines -- just frequently unspoken of one's.  

Painting showing a traditional requiem and burial. 

This trend has also influenced many Catholics perceptions of memento mori. Some see a skull and crossbones and associate it with "pirates" (i.e. the Jolly Roger) while others have even gone so far as to call them "satanic" -- no doubt associating them with their use by 1980's heavy metal bands. I suspect that the many monastics and saints who kept these reminders before them, whether in their cells or refectories (never mind also their churches and liturgies) would be shocked by these associations, distortions and rejections by their fellow Catholics. 

In all of these instances what it comes down to is that many Catholics have lost awareness of the Catholic roots and use of these symbols. They have allowed them to be co-opted to the point of abandonment, in the same way some have allowed "All Hallows [Saints] Eve" to be co-opted, but rejecting these symbols would be akin to rejecting Christmas because some have chosen to distort it as well.

The reality is memento mori serve is healthy, if sobering, purpose. It is a reminder to us that we are all mortal and as such our eternal destiny must always be set firmly before our eyes. It is also a reminder of the fact that we need to pray for our dead -- an act of mercy and charity that is all too forgotten. This is not "negative," nor is it devoid of "hope" -- it is rather a prudent recognition that we are not perfect and we are in need of divine mercy and forgiveness. 

Photo by Lawrence Lew, O.P. showing the Holy Souls of Purgatory

We need to recover a proper sense of and familiarity with memento mori and we need to reject the distorted notion that these are somehow "macabre" or "satanic" and remind ourselves that they are deeply rooted in Catholic culture. They are not macabre; they are -- as Mother Angelica used to term it -- "holy reminders."

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