Explanation of Memento Mori
The purpose of Memento Mori is to remind us of our mortality, so we may focus on what is most important. Reasonable people would not let minor inconveniences distract them from caring for their family or their own lives, but so often, we let life distract us from caring for our souls.
It is not, as some may pervert similar imagery, a devotion to any "death" figure. The skulls are merely representative of our own mortal flesh. It is not nihilism: for with the sober and true realization of our own pending death can we actually act in a way that is well ordered so we may live life the fullest, and not pursue vanities to our own destruction and sorrow.
If one sees reminders of death as mere macabre, a shocking and disturbing image, one might do well to reflect: we are going to die and when the times comes, do you want to see it as a transition or as an end? When you leave your flesh and all worldly connections behind, do you want to look back as if you lost everything, or look forward in Hope?
The prayer most repeated during recitation of the Rosary ends with
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. This repetitive request for intercession up to our last moments of life makes the skull shaped beads most suitable for reflection: if one is saying it, one might benefit from feeling it.
The Memento Mori reflections and any imagery should direct us to conduct our lives better than we would otherwise: to put what is most important first, and deal with lesser things appropriately, with a rational understanding of their role and importance in our lives.
The starkest reminder in the Mass is on Ash Wednesday, where one may receive blessed ashes and the following reminder:
Meménto homo, quia pulvis es, etin púlverim revertéris, which means:
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. This recalls the first sin and its effects:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.
These scripture passages, out of many, can help one understand the value of being constantly mindful of our mortality:
In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.
In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis.
For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us.
And he spoke a similitude to them, saying: The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits. And he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater; and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods. And I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer. But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?
So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God. And he said to his disciples: Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat; nor for your body, what you shall put on. The life is more than the meat, and the body is more than the raiment. Consider the ravens, for they sow not, neither do they reap, neither have they storehouse nor barn, and God feedeth them. How much are you more valuable than they? And which of you, by taking thought, can add to his stature one cubit?
If then ye be not able to do so much as the least thing, why are you solicitous for the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. Now if God clothe in this manner the grass that is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more you, O ye of little faith? And seek not you what you shall eat, or what you shall drink: and be not lifted up on high. For all these things do the nations of the world seek. But your Father knoweth that you have need of these things.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom. Sell what you possess and give alms. Make to yourselves bags which grow not old, a treasure in heaven which faileth not: where no thief approacheth, nor moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.