Memento Mori

Yesterday I got to do my Monsters Chapel talk. I entitled it "Monsters as Memento Mori." If you read my earlier post on this you're aware of how I think monsters (along with Halloween) can function as a memento mori.

Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you are mortal" or "Remember you will die." Memento mori refers to an art form where reminders of death are painted or included in a painting. The classic example is a still life of a skull:

Sometimes a hourglass is added to symbolize the sands of time:

Occasionally, more subtle details are added, like bubbles:

The bubbles remind me of these biblical passages (along with the entire book of Ecclesiastes):

James 4.14b
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Psalm 78.39
[Yahweh] remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.

Psalm 39.4-6
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be."
Given my existential bent, you won't be surprised to know that I use a memento mori. On my desk is a skull I use for this purpose. A picture of my desk:

That's my skull on top of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Freud is also waving at you in the bottom right corner (he's a card in a mug of pens). The skull, incidentally, is wearing my academic hat, the hat that goes with my academic robes when I participate in commencement. Couldn't think of a better place to hang my hat.

[If you want a tour of my office, I'll continue. Hanging in the middle of the picture, and from the ceiling, is a dragon puppet I bought in Prague castle. On the top of my desk is a phrenology bust. Next to the bust are some rare/prized books I own: First edition copies of some William James, a first edition book autographed by William Stringfellow, some first edition copies of Ernest Becker, etc.

Looking at the skull from the other direction, from where I sit, this part of my office looks like this:

In the foreground is my vintage rotary phone. (Funny story about that. The phone I had before this one was a fancy digital phone that could do all this cool stuff. I never used the cool stuff. So when I got the rotary phone I had to place a work order to get the digital line switched back to an analog line. The phone guys were just flummoxed. They keep asking my administrative coordinator, "Is he sure he wants to do this? He's going to lose a lot of functionality." She just smiled, "You don't know Richard. Yes, he's aware and this is what he wants." I love my rotary phone! Jana gave it to me for Christmas. It was huge hit with the boys. They asked, "How does it work?" I said, "Well, you put your finger in the hole and then turn the dial until your figure hits the metal piece over there. Then pull your figure out." They thought it was the coolest thing. And I make calls just to dial the phone.)

Just past the Calvin and Hobbes books and the skull with gold-tasseled hat is the small art desk Aidan used when he was little. It's covered in paint and markers. Couldn't throw it away. So it's in my office and has, on top of it, my Ugly Doll collection. I'm big into Ugly Dolls.]

But back to this post. I have a memento mori--a skull on my desk. And on hard days at work I look at it and think: Remember the truth about all this stuff around you, all this stuff that is stressing you and everyone else out--all this striving, pushing, competing, assessing, goal-setting, excelling, climbing, and performing.

It's all just Vanity of Vanities.

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22 thoughts on “Memento Mori”

  1. Thanks for this personal tour of your inner-space.
    What a fascinating guy you are!
    Anyone who is into both Calvin and Hobbes and Memento Mori art is pretty alright by me - balanced, playful, earnest, thoughtful, realistic and grounded.
    I aspire to be likewise (to these attributes, not, with respect to your good-self - that would just be creepy :) )
    This post itself is a useful Memento Mori and I'll read it to my class this morning to remind them too...
    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the office tour.  What's the red and black on yellow background thing on the middle of your top shelf?  My first thought:  Clifford the Big Red Dog picture book :-)  I've read this blog for a year or two, but these pictures and the recent video of interview with Rachel Held Evans gave me a sense of "meeting" you.

    On Vanity of Vanities -- thanks for this reminder, too.  Being a mom is hard, in the sense that the world tends to devalue a lot of what I do every day...  How do you quantify intangibles (i.e., that don't pull a paycheck or can't be measured by scientific or economic laws)?  The outcome of my work sometimes takes years to see...  I wonder, at times, if I've either failed, or am wasting my time on the "wrong" endeavors.  Plenty of people are glad to affirm these fears!  Few tend to speak encouragement.  This post was encouraging to me, by getting to the bottom line.  I do have only one life, and there's so much of me to go around  (at any one time/place).  Be present in the moment, and focus on what's most important with my energy and abilities.  I think that's all I can do -- work it together, Lord, if You will...

  3. I want your phone. So bad. I know that's not the point of the post but there it is. I want it. I want to get on a plane, come to California, break into your office and steal your phone. Or just buy my own; either is good.

  4. Thank you for the office tour.  Very interesting and entertaining.  Your blog spot is my favorite.  I've introduced you to my girls, ages 29 and 25, who also enjoy and relate to your viewpoints and thoughts.  They will also greatly appreciate your office decor, especially the 25 year old.  

    I feel that I am in class when I read your blogs.  Ever so blessed and inspired by your calling to serve our God in this way.....ever so thankful.      

  5. You know what I like about it? Two things. 1) I like the mechanical feel of it. You're not pushing a button (virtual or real}; you are turning a crank and the movement and resistance you get back, physically, just feels so cool. 2) I love how slow it is to dial. The phone stands as my ode to inefficiency and slowness in an increasingly fast and efficient world.

  6. Thanks, Susan, for these reflections.

    The red and black book is this:

    Given my interests in PostSecret (see sidebar for some posts about this) one of my favorites students gave me the book as a gift.

  7. The black rotary phone ... I grew up with one just like it, only in avocado green. My oldest has a skull, too. A real one, though. Not human, it's raccoon, but it looks really cool in his sword display case, along with a handwritten letter from Clive Cussler.

  8. Sounds like a very interesting chapel, reminds me of a trip to Byron's Newstead Abbey.  I like the phone, it looks like it's the same vintage as the one here on my desk that I got from a warehouse find--a whole warehouse of new, unopened boxes of rotary phones that had been in storage for a few decades.  I have the black desk phone and (my favorite) a large white rotary wall phone.

  9. PostSecret -- another title to add to my reading list.  Thanks for the answer to the burning question, "What is that unidentified object in the periphery?!"  Will revisit that series of posts in the sidebar, too.

  10. Richard,

    I saw you at Lipscomb in the summer of 2010, just before taking a trip to Italy with my students. On that occasion, our mutual friend, ACU art professor Dan McGregor, suggested that I pay a visit to the Capuchin Crypt, located downstairs of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome.

    Six students joined me to see the crypt; and it was an unforgettable experience. The crypt is the ultimate memento mori. The skeletons and/or scattered bones of over 4,000 Capuchin monks are arranged artistically to fill a series of small chapels. A plaque at the end of the corridor reads in five languages: "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be ..."

    I've also noticed that a skeleton hovers in the background of Dan McGregor's picture on his ACU faculty site. 

    Steven Pounders

  11. It is a hard pill to swallow, sometimes - remembering my mortality.  I am a goal-setter, a plan-maker, and an achiever by nature. I don't like to think of my work as a mist.  But Ecclesiastes is clear on this point - the point of life is to enjoy the work of your hands and not the process of it.  Thanks for the reminder...

  12. Richard, How does this work with children? How do you balance reminding your children of their mortality while also providing them with a sense of security and safety that is so important to their development?  

  13. Hmmmm. I actually don't do this with my children. It's a personal discipline for my own spiritual formation. Not being a developmental psychologist I'm not sure how or if this should be used with children.

  14. Hey Richard, I don't know if your computer will get this comment on an old post... but I am on the search for a comment made by someone (it may have been been you) on why Moses raised a serpent as the antidote for a serpent bite. Why is the cure the same as the cause of the illness? Is it a sign of momento mori. I just can't recall where I read about this. Do you have any idea?

  15. Hi Bruce,
    Nothing is coming to mind about that specific connection. The only post I know of where I've written about that story is here:

  16. Richard, check out this skull watch that "counts down the days till death"

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