Remember, you must die: Memento Mori Photography

I’m spending a lot of time on Pinterest these days in preparation for my Handmade Holiday Onslaught 2k16 (so many crafts!), and by some wonderful fortune my feed is healthily populated by a collection of memento mori photography. If you’re not familiar with the genre, these photos are often referred to as “Victorian Death Photography.” Memento mori in Latin literally means “Remember you must die.” A phrase with so much gravity has its own special creep factor if we consider the deceased to be the subject of the photograph subverting the gaze of power and directing it instead at you, the audience member: “Hey you! Remember that you, too, will meet this end.” This idea of remembrance is especially captivating for me considering time of year, a season basically orchestrated around the celebration of commodified remembrance. Anyway, the historian in me found this tradition fascinating and I thought it was worth sharing the review:

dead_people_19(Unknown photographer

Memento mori, the phrase itself dates back to legends about The Romans who would welcome their generals home after battle with a parade to honor the men of victorious strength. In order to avoid seeming arrogant the generals would station a slave in their court who would call out to the officers during the ceremony, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento (Look behind you, and remember that you are human [e.g. you’re going to die like the rest of us]).” The veracity of this tale not withstanding (see Mary Beard’s book), art and writing with this theme of remembrance became popular after the fall of the Roman Empire as it related to Ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”), a common motif in medieval art and literature.

janson_chapter_7-381351899651504(A stone depiction of a Roman Triumph ceremony on the Arch of Titus, located in Via Sacra, Rome [SE of the Roman Forum] photo from

According to Simon Thomas, a librarian for the Bodleian Library of Oxford, Ars moriendi was first and foremost a popular 15th century tract distributed by prominent Christians who intended to offer “comfort and practical instruction to the dying man and his family.” There were two versions of the text, one dating to 1415 and the other c.1450. Thomas makes clear that the popularity and widespread circulation of the texts was a response to the devastation of the Black Plague in 14th century Europe.

unspecified(A page from the original Ars Moriendi housed at Oxford library)

Ars moriendi was eventually translated into most European languages and normalized the brutal imagery of death because it reflected the macabre reality of the time. Ars moriendi tracts themselves served as memento mori, or constant portable reminders of impending death that were fairly easy to reproduce and could be consumed in the private sphere. Religious iconography of the Reformation and Catholicism also proliferated in the Ars moriendi style:


(The Lamentation by Scipione Pulzone , 1593, photo from The

Items such as the Gutenberg printing press and the rise of deathbed portraits gave the garrish theme stronger footing in popular culture from the 1600’s onward.

jan_jansz-_de_stomme_-_kinderlijkje_groninger_museum(Example of 18th century deathbed portraiture from the Netherlands, where it was common for wreaths to be placed around the heads of children, photo from

This kind of physical memorialization of the dead became common practice (I’ll be writing about things like hair jewelry and lachrymose, stay tuned!). When in-home use of photography became available around 1839 it probably was not considered that weird to take photos of your dead loved ones. These items also became treasured family heirlooms because access to commercial photography would have been something of an expensive luxury only available to certain classes.

So, there’s a brief history of memento mori photography. Taking photos as a means of loving remembrance certainly makes it difficult to forget about your own death. Creepy in its own right but makes more sense when followed through the wasteland of human suffering, religious influence, and technological advancement.

I still can’t get over the open eyes… Anyway, Happy Crafting if that’s your thing and thanks for the read.

858d4e352ce5b62354e579c926e91635.jpg(play your own game of “guess who,” photo from

2 thoughts on “Remember, you must die: Memento Mori Photography

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