Memento mori is a Latin phrase that may be translated as “Remember that you are mortal,” “Remember you will die,” “Remember that you must die,” or “Remember your death”. It names a genre of artistic creations that vary widely from one another, but which all share the same purpose, which is to remind people of their own mortality.
In ancient Rome, the phrase is said to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets of Rome during the victory celebration known as a triumph. Standing behind the victorious general was a slave, and he had the task of reminding the general that, though he was up on the peak today, tomorrow was another day. The servant did this by telling the general that he should remember that he was mortal: “Memento mori.” It is also possible that the servant said, rather, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!”: “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!”, as noted in Tertullian in his Apologeticus.
The concept, in the art of classical antiquity, was more frequently embodied in the phrase carpe diem, or “seize the day.” This carries echoes of the admonishment to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, the language of which originates in Isaiah 22:13: “But look! you feast and celebrate, you slaughter oxen and butcher sheep, You eat meat and drink wine: ‘Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!'” The thought appears elsewhere in Roman literature: Horace’s Odes include the well known line Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus. (Now is the time to drink, now the time to dance footloose upon the earth.) Horace goes on to explain that now is the time because there will be no drinking or dancing in the afterlife, a classic example of the carpe diem theme. This theme is repeated in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, stanza XXXV: ‘…”While you live, / “Drink!—for, once dead, you never shall return.”‘ And the popular theme of “Timor mortis conturbat me, quilla inferno nulla est redemptio”…The Fear Of Death Torments Me Because In Hell There Is No Redemption.