Return of the Memento Mori: imaging death in public health.

23 March 2015

Death has always held a morbid fascination for humans. Indeed, awareness of one’s own mortality may well be one of the defining features of the ‘human condition’ – symbols of death appearing in most civilizations since artefacts have been made. The Latin phrase memento mori, meaning literally ‘remember to die’, encapsulates a rich and varied artistic tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of figuring death by symbolizing its literal processes and remainders. From the decomposed effigies of 15th-century ‘cadaver tombs’, to the humorous medieval iconography of the skeletal danse macabre, the works of this genre draw on the destructive physical changes that are a part of our understanding of death. Prolific within its morbid imagery are the use of skull, skeleton and verminous or rotting flesh as ‘trope’ or symbol of the processes that eventually take away the person who lived, and who was once like us. At the height of its popularity between the 16th and 18th centuries, Church walls, tombs, jewellery, paintings, and so on frequently depicted death and decay. The entreaty to ‘remember’ death in memento mori was more than simply a call for ‘therapeutic contemplation’1 or the banal acceptance of the imminence of death; it was a call to piety, to conformity. Damnation would be added to death if the individual transgressed the rules of Catholic doctrine, such that scholars often trace a continuity between the motives of memento mori, and the biblical injunction: ‘Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss’ (Ecclesiasticus 7:36).2 Even within the iconophobic Protestantism of the post-Reformation era, the memento mori trope persisted as a privileged mode of pious warning. In the visually secular effigy monuments of the Elizabethan gentry, inscriptions urging the reader to ‘(r)emember the last things and…not sin again’ signified that death would come to everyone – but only spiritual public health would reduce the risk of eternal punishment and separation from God.3 The memento mori trope survives into the present day, albeit in differing locations. Loosely discernible in the ‘corpse chic’ of contemporary haute couture, and entrenched within the aesthetics of punk and gothic subcultures, the skull and skeleton loom large as Western symbols of cultural rebellion.4 Similarly, the fully enfleshed ‘corpse’ continues to haunt the zone of 2 | P a g e contemporary representation – saturating the realm of Hollywood film and ‘hard news’ reportage alike, and asserting its dominance in forensics-inspired television programmes such as CSI. Representing death, it would seem, has never been more popular. Indeed, depictions of death have emerged as ‘mainstream advertising strategy’4 – their gore and horror satisfying a perverse voyeurism that many would attribute to the alienating effects of mass media saturation. While the ‘pornography’ of suffering5 in contemporary culture appears to have little in common with classical memento mori, if one looks closely, certain elements particular to this once-spiritual genre of death depiction can be unearthed, most notably in the secular arena of public health.