“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19
“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Book of Common Prayer , 1662
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It’s said that one of the things that separate us from animals is the knowledge of our own death. Sooner or later we all die, and in times past, how one dealt with that knowledge often determined the course of one’s life.
To the pious, it was a reminder to follow the Law, to be pure for heaven and avoid the tortures of the damned. To the libertine, it was a reason to live life fully, for life is short and you’re a long time dead.
Today we mostly just try not to think about it.
That wasn’t an option for most of the history of mankind, and indeed, amongst many cultures death is still close by. But Americans in the 21st century do our best to expunge death from our thoughts.
One only need visit a graveyard from the early twentieth century to see how close death was. Count all the small tombstones, a reminder of the dreadful infant mortality rate of the time. Look closer and you’ll see mothers who died in childbirth, soldiers who died in war, and closer still to make out the years when disease ran rampant. Graveyards and cemeteries aren’t only a record of those who came before us, but also visual markers of death as it cut it swath through our communities
If you lived in a rural area, even your supper involved death. Animals were killed on the farm, often by the children of the family. It’s hard to imagine a child of today chopping the head off a chicken with a hatchet, especially considering that there’s a substantial percentage of children who can’t identify the animal which forms the basis of their chicken nuggets. Regardless of whether one is a vegetarian or a carnivore, it’s impossible to deny that the meat industry has taken advantage of our averting our eyes to the death of our food source, to visit atrocities on our animals that our ancestors would never have dreamt of.
Not only were you born at home rather than a hospital, unless you fell by accident or malicious intent, you usually died there. Your family handled the preparation of the body. And there you stayed, in your coffin, through the wake and the funeral as well.
The Puritans believed that contemplation of one’s own mortality was good for the soul. And where better to be reminded than on the tombstones of their loved ones? What could make for a better reminder as a last testament, that you will someday be as they are, dust in the grave.
Traveling through the early colonies on our eastern seaboard, if you visit the old graveyards you’ll see many examples of Memento Mori, which translates from the Latin to “Remember that you will die.”
Often accompanied by winged skulls, this statement then wasn’t as morbid as it appears today. The Spanish long ago started adorning the entrances to graveyards with skulls and bones, a symbol of what happens to all who were laid to rest there. By the time of the establishment of the American colonies, the skull, with and without crossbones was an accepted symbol of death. The winged skull was symbolic of how the soul is freed and taken up into the afterlife. Triumph over death.
The skull and cross bones, later adapted by some pirates most famously, and a common motif on 18th century tombstones is simply another version of that reminder, that this will someday be you. The famous symbol of the danse macabre as well, is another example of Memonto Mori.
One will often find symbols of the passing of time on tombstones – the hourglass, for time is always in danger of running out, as well as the scythe, often associated with the figure of death, the robed skeleton who comes for us all. In an agrarian society, the scythe was a common farm implement, used to cut down the harvest when it was time. It also found its way into legends of sacrifice, particularly when sacrificing for the harvest. These symbols are frequently found in conjunction with others – the stars, vines and flowers, all symbolizing that though there is death, life goes on.
As the nineteenth century rolled around, Momento Mori fell out of favor in tombstone carvings, though some of the lesser symbols such as the hour glass held on for some time. Perhaps we as a nation had grown tired of death by the end of the Civil War. By the end of the twentieth century, the most famous example of Momento Mori was to be found in the artwork created for the music group, the Grateful Dead. An appropriate choice, as their clan weathered the loss of four keyboard players, as well as their lead guitarist/singer. A song from their early days, written by the Reverend Gary Davis sums things up …
Death will leave you standing and crying in this land
He come to your house, you know he don’t take long
You look in the bed this morning children
Find that your brothers and sisters have gone
I said death don’t, death don’t have no mercy in this, in this land