John Tierney of Historic Graves on a recent trip to Edinburgh in Scotalnd to talk at the Digital Futures Conference took the accompanying photograph in the graveyard known as the Kirk of Canongate. Memento Mori are reminders of our mortality. They have come back into vogue recently and can be used to nudge people towards better behaviour. This idea of gentle persuasion or nudging has been developed by Thaler and Sunstein in their seminal popular psychology book called ‘Nudge’. They developed methods to encourage people towards better decisions and their methods have been taken on board by health agencies and other government bodies in the United States. Memento Mori can act in this fashion, as tacit acknowledgements or reminders of our mortality seem to propel people to action or generate renewed enthusiasm. They can instil a kind of ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’ attitude. It has become popular therefore to place reproduction skulls on desks or have images of skulls on computer desktops.
Memnto Mori have a long tradition dating back to classical times when triumphant generals were encouraged to remember their mortality and that while they may have been victorius today who knows what tomorrow will bring. The legends of ‘The Dance of Death’ or the ‘Danse Macabre’ and the ‘Three Living and the Three Dead’ originated in Europe during the Middle Ages, after the black death in the fourteenth century. Memnto Mori symbols were used in European art and literature from this period.
The four main mortality symbols are; the hourglass, the bell, the skull and the coffin. These motifs appear to derive from illustrations of the ‘Dance of Death’ which depict death visiting people of all walks of life and reminding them of their mortality.
The use of these symbols of mortality on memorial monuments became popular in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and appears in Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century. A skull with a longbone in its mouth is depicted on the McGrath chest tomb in Lismore Co. Waterford
which dates to 1557.
Finbar McCormick (1983) in a paper in the Clogher Record (Vol. 11) describing a particular tomb from Tydavnet in Co. Monaghan provides some background and insightful thoughts on mortality symbols in general and on a particular type of ‘mortality memorial’ which appears to be confined to the Monaghan/Fermanagh area during the eighteenth century.
‘The mortality stones date from about 1720 to 1770 but the majority were erected before c. 1750. The symbols of death are carved on the reverse sides of the stone and never on the same side as the inscription. They almost invariably consist of a skull and crossed bones, bell, coffin and hourglass. The coffin is generally depicted underneath the skull but this is not always the case. In later examples, extra symbols such as small stars were sometimes added in order to improve the overall balance of the design.’
McCormick believes that this particular group of head stones owe their origin not to the sixteenth and seventeenth century sepulchral monuments found in the south of Ireland but are instead derived from Scotish Jacobean monuments of the same period and which are largely confined to Scotish towns such as Edinburgh and Stirling.
Historic Graves are currently working with a number of community groups in the Cavan/Monaghan region and have undertaken a survey in St Colman’s Church of Ireland graveyard in Clontibret, Co. Monaghan
. One of the eighteenth century headstones
there has distinctive carvings on the reverse side of the stone to the inscription. However the motifs appear to be a cross, stars and a heart. According to McCormick the use of mortality symbols on memorial stones declines sharply after 1760 and are replaced by the cross and other symbols of salvation and resurrection. We will keep our eyes peeled for examples of mortality symbols as we complete our workshops across Co. Monaghan.