Memento mori is a Latin phrase that may be freely translated as "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will 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.
I am surrounded by boxes and boxes of pictures. Perhaps since the deaths of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and good friend, Phil, I am more aware of my mortality. I am scanning and printing and making postcards of and going through and frequently going to Mmmm and saying, “Look at this! Isn’t this cute?” Or “look at this! Do you remember when this happened?” I am especially excited when I rediscover an old picture such as the one taken of my grandfather and his family when he was about nine. I always thought it was taken in Russia but it must have been here in the US.
One really can discern a lot by looking at the picture. The house behind them is a log house. This is a second generation picture. You can see the nails on either side that held the picture or the frame. A blanket is hung over a line to provide a backdrop. My grandfather, sitting on the ground in front, and his younger brother are wearing what appear to be dresses. I remember Grandpa telling us that the picture was taken when he was a girl. Both he and my father were great teases so we weren’t confused by that but we thought it was very strange to dress a little boy in girl’s clothes.
Another thing I noticed was that there were twelve people in the picture and not one is smiling. After looking at dozens of older pictures, I have decided that perhaps this was such a solemn occasion that no one dared smile, or the photographer was so slow that all smiles had disappeared or that it just seemed more fitting that no one should smile. Or maybe their teeth were really bad. There evidently were no photographers saying “Say cheese!” or “Kootchy, Kootchy, Koo!” Our grandfather told us that he wasn’t smiling because Tante Katje (Aunt Katie) perched on her mother’s lap just above him had just wet on him. I probably wouldn’t smile either. I can hear the photographer: “You in the back, put one hand in your coat and the other on your sister’s shoulder. All you boys in the back, put one hand in your coat. You on the end, put your hand on your father’s shoulder. You in the middle, cross your arms. Now Father, you take the next to the youngest on your lap. Is that Julia? Masha, stop poking Julia, You boys in the front, stop wiggling. Ready?” And it was done.
People often took pictures of dead people. Everybody didn’t have cameras then and the incidence of infant death was high so people would have a picture taken of the corpse to remember that child or the adult, a Memento Mori. I have a picture of my Aunt Bert’s twin girls, Francis and Clara, a picture of my grandfather Roth, a picture of my own father, all in their coffins! I appreciate the fact that my mother and father made sure that pictures were taken of us, even in the depression when money was hard to come by and while we were alive.
We went to a memorial service today for our friend Phil. There were songs and sermons and remembrances by family and friends. There was a CD with pictures from his life. It was truly a celebration of a life well lived. The program had a picture of Phil sailing, one of his favorite activities. At the bottom of the page was Phil’s favorite Scripture verse – a verse he lived by. It was:
“And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, Giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
A wonderful Memento Mori of a wonderful man.
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