Few uses of symbolism are as old as memento mori, nor are there many others so richly rooted in so many cultures and traditions. A memento, or “reminder” of death, the memento mori has been used for thousands of years as a reflection on the virtues of introspection and humility.
That meaning goes back as far as ancient Rome, when an ordinary man would follow behind a triumphant general on his victory parade, whispering to him that he was only a mortal man after all.
Its use was resurrected as an art form during Europe’s medieval period, where it played a part in art and literature, and was a popular element among knights in showcasing their virtues of liege loyalty and humility.
Today, the memento mori is a popular theme in tattoos for men, but it retains much of its well-established meaning. Though it might make use of such symbols as a shroud, a skull, or a grim reaper, it is not a morbid or macabre symbol. Instead, it serves as a reminder of our shared destiny: we are all mortal men, fated to die, and should be concerned with the betterment of ourselves and the improvement of our character while we yet live.