Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Momento Mori

Momento mori originally were contemplations on mortality which could be expressed in art, literature and music.  With the advent of photography, the term came to include postmortem portraits.     While delayed in Texas while en route home from visiting Mom and Lyn, I encountered a momento mori in an unexpected location.  I had taken my younger son out to dinner and the restaurant was decorated with random black and white photographs from ages past.  The portrait I spotted was of a set of deceased triplets with a man who I presume is the father of the children.


I asked the waiter if he knew the story behind the portrait.  He didn't know the term and only knew a designer had hung it when the restaurant was being decorated.  I explained the term and pointed out that the children in the picture were deceased.  The poor waiter shuddered but allowed me to quickly take a picture with my cell phone.

Interestingly, Mom had passed me a momento mori just a day or two before this encounter.  She gave me a picture of my Great Grandmother in her casket.  Mom insisted she really didn't need this family treasure any longer.


I've contemplated memento mori before but these two really got me to thinking.  Today, we (or at least I) tend to generalize any keepsake or memento that helps you remember the deceased into the memento mori category.  If we go with this broader definition, then there's quite a bit of momento mori still in use today.  When my Grandfather passed, I asked for his hat so I could keep it as something to remember him by.    His hat serves this purpose to me.

Memorial items have a long tradition, especially jewelry.    You can have memorial jewelry made.  For a time, it was popular to include a lock of the deceased's hair in the jewelry.  Today, you can reserve some of Grandma's cremains to have an artificial diamond made or have her thumb print made into a piece of jewelry.

Memorial boxes have become increasingly popular as well.  Some objects like my Grandfather's hat don't fit nicely into an album of family photos.  The boxes allow you to bring together a small collection of items which all have sentimental significance to help ease the grieving process.  When an infant dies, particularly a new born, many hospitals are now providing the grieving parents with a small box containing a picture of the infant, a beanie, booties and a swaddling blanket.

I've seen aprons and stuffed teddy bears made from a treasured article of clothing such as a man's dress shirt or his favorite flannel shirt.  These items too are made as memento mori.

Slightly different but very closely related is the use of tattoos.  The individual who gets a memorial tattoo is permanently altering their body with reminder of the one they've loved and lost.  The process of designing the tattoo and getting the tattoo as well as the significance of the art helps the individual deal with the grief of their loss.  The tattoos will be discussed many times in the future, allowing memories of the deceased to be recalled and shared with anyone who asks about the tattoo.

When I first started contemplating this post, I initially thought I would declare there would be no momento mori stemming from Lyn's passing whenever that may be.  I can't make that statement.  I've previously written about possibly getting another tattoo which would use the language of flowers to indicate memory and loss.  (I've already got tattoos which represent the members of my household.)  I'll probably keep some personal belonging of Lyn's.  I also have all of my pictures of her though I have no intention of taking a postmortem picture of her.

Memento mori have a place in helping people deal with grief even if we sometimes forget that connection or the meaning of an object.

(Note: This blog was written while Monty Python's _The Meaning of Life_ played in the background.)


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