The Meaning of Memento Mori: What It Is and How To Use It

What does the Latin phrase memento mori mean? This article will teach you what you need to know about the meaning of this phrase.

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The term memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember you must die.” How is this term used, and what is the history behind this morbid phrase? Keep reading to learn more. 

What Does the Word Memento Mori Mean?

The phrase memento mori is Latin for “remember you must die.” This is often seen in paintings alongside objects like a skull, extinguished candles, flowers, fruit, and clocks or hourglasses. This genre of painting rose to popularity in the 17th century as a reminder of the fragility of human life and death.


Memento mori is related to the vanitas still life, including objects like musical instruments, books, and wine. These paintings were created to remind viewers of the vanity of earthly pleasures. This is a reference to the opening line of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, which reads: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

Danse Macabre

Another way that memento mori has been referenced was through dance in the late Middle Ages and Medieval periods. During the Black Death, the plague killed over 25 million people across Europe, wiping out nearly a third of the total population. In this time, the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death” was often featured in paintings. Here, kings and peasants of all ages danced together to show that death is universal.

Rings of Mourning

Throughout the Regency and Victorian eras, there were high levels of infant mortality, war, plague, and massacre. Death was always present in the public’s mind, which was reflected in the art of the time. Many people wore memento mori rings, from those in extreme poverty to the queen. These bands serve as a reminder that there is no real master besides death. 

Memento Mori in the Modern Day

Today, many people carry around memento mori coins or other tokens to remind themselves that death is inevitable and to live life to the fullest. This term can be used in meditations, funerary art, and more to remind people of their pride and hubris in life.

Celebrities like Casey Neistat, Tim Ferriss, Gary Vaynerchuk, Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, and more have all said how much the inevitably of death inspires them to live life to the fullest every day. This inspires them to work toward making something great in their lifetimes.

Artist Damien Hirst, Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park, Gucci, The Weeknd, and Mac Miller have all used memento mori as themes in their work.

Overall, this ancient concept isn’t going anywhere. Many people still relate to the concept of memento mori, allowing the inevitably of death to inspire them to live for today.

What Is the Etymology of the Word Memento Mori?

The actual words memento and mori are Latin and come from the Latin mementō and Latin morī. Memento means to remember and is the imperative of meminisse. Mori means to die, according to the Free Dictionary of the English Language. This concept has been used in many different cultures throughout time.

The Stoics

The stoics used the term memento mori to remind them that life is precious and to treat each day as a gift. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca urged people to live each day to its fullest in their writings and teachings. 

The Romans

It is thought that the idea of memento mori originated from the Romans. After a major victory in Ancient Rome, the military generals were idolized and paraded around towns in chariots. There would also be an enslaved person standing behind the general to remind everyone that he was not a god and would someday die as well, just like the enslaved person. 

The Egyptians

The Ancient Egyptians also used this concept. Inside the pyramids and tombs of pharaohs, archeologists discovered that death was a major concept in Egyptian culture. They would raise skeletons in their feasts to celebrate how they would live in the afterlife.

The Buddhists

The Buddhists, who have a heavy focus on mindfulness, are very focused on mindfulness of the inevitability of death. Buddhists practice something called maranasati, which refers to death awareness. They believe that the awareness of death is essential to living life to the fullest.

The Catholics

Catholics and Christians also have a focus on death in their teachings. Specifically, the book of Psalms in the Bible centers around mortality and that death is inevitable. This core biblical theme is present in many different teachings throughout the Bible.

What Are Synonyms of the Word Memento Mori?

Memento mori is a very specific Latin phrase that has a strong connotation. If you are looking for a word with a similar meaning to the word memento mori but not the same connotations and association with art, using one of these synonyms from Power Thesaurus can be very helpful. 

  • affliction
  • blanket
  • cenotaph
  • comforter
  • commemoration
  • crossbones
  • damper
  • death
  • death’s-head
  • favor
  • hatchment
  • memento
  • memoirs
  • memorabilia
  • memorial
  • memories
  • monument
  • obelisk
  • pyramid
  • relic
  • remembrance
  • reminder of human failure
  • reminder of mortality
  • shrine
  • skull
  • sorry sight
  • souvenir
  • token
  • trophy


The phrase memento mori comes from the New Latin mementō morī, and translates to “remember you must die.” This haunting phrase is thought to be a reminder of the inevitability of death and to have hubris in life. This is similar to the phrases carpe diem and tempus fugit.


  1. Stoic Ethics | IEP 
  2. 34 Words and Phrases for Memento Mori | Power Thesaurus 
  3. Memento mori | The Free Dictionary