Memento Mori

Herman Henstenburgh Vanitas Still Life

Exuberant flowers bloom and serve as a symbol for life, love, joy and youth, while the skull and bones remind us that all life ends in death. Vanitas Still Life by Herman Henstenburgh, Dutch, 1667-1726, The Metropolitan Museum online collection, acc. # 2003.30

People have been concerned with what happens after death since our ancestors first started burying their dead. You can cite just about any ancient culture (including, most recently, the Neanderthals – see below) and find that there were rituals surrounding the death and burial of their people.

reconstruction of neanderthal burial at La Chapelle aux Saints, Fr

“Most anthropologists now agree, based on evidence uncovered at 20 or so grave sites throughout Western Europe, that our closest evolutionary relatives buried their dead at least some of the time.” Reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Image and quote from

Mortality follows us throughout our lives right up to the final moment and then the big question is – what happens after that?

Theologians can argue the finer points – but historically speaking in Europe, the concept of Heaven and Hell in the Christian faith began to coalesce into dogma sometime in the 1200s.*

During the Middle Ages death was omnipresent and brutal. Life expectancy was about half of what it is today. This was particularly the case when the Bubonic Plague hit Europe in the 14th century, and up to one third of the population perished from the dreaded disease, with some areas completely wiped out.

There were so many diseased and dying bodies that personal burials were forgone for the easier and quicker common grave – which naturally horrified those who were sick and dying, and those who were able to survive.

The need to provide a proper burial became somewhat of an obsession – whatever the cost, you had to have a burial with a priest saying prayers, and the proper rites and rituals performed, as outlined by the Church.

triumph of death book of hours french

Death is upsetting to most people, but in the Middle Ages it was particularly terrifying, brutal and real. The Triumph of Death, from a Book of Hours, French School Provence ca. 1485-1490, Moulins, BM, msl 89, fol.88r

Huge sums of money were spent on places of worship, personal tombs, art, goodly deeds, and donations to religious institutions, to help ensure a quick exit from Purgatory to Heaven (and the total avoidance of Hell) with little or no suffering along the way. Sins could be waylaid and salvation ensured by buying prayers to be performed after death – a practice that the Protestant Reformation (16th c) discarded and outlawed.

It was during the Medieval Period that memento mori – began to appear in all aspects of everyday life.

rosary bead metropolitan m mori death

Rosary bead with death on one side, MMA

rosary bead metropolitan m mori

Same bead with a young couple on the reverse

A memento mori is a symbolic reminder that death is waiting for all of us and that we had better be good citizens while we are living, in order to ensure that our afterlife will be a blessed one.

It was a Christian concept and one which eventually became entwined into everyday vernacular. It has continued throughout the intervening centuries in religious and secular art.

One of the most famous representations is in the portrait The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In this masterpiece, Holbein sets his subjects in a richly appointed room, dressed in the most expensive and exquisite clothing, surrounded by a collection of finely crafted objects representing not only their wealth but their education and sophistication – all things that only the most elevated and powerful of men could buy and enjoy.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors, National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, National Gallery of Art London, UK

Yet directly in the foreground of this homage to their glorified selves, Holbein placed an anamorphic image – so distorted, that at first glance it seems to be some aberration floating above the floor. A visual puzzle…

Holbein The Ambassadors, skull

The skull transformed and made real. Detail from The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533

But when viewed from the right perspective, it forms a three dimensional skull – big and ugly – smack dab in the foreground in case you might miss it. It seems to say…

… Despite the luxury and pomp of these men, they will die like everyone else, and all their worldly possessions will be meaningless. They will become food for worms just like the poor and illiterate of the world. In the end what will matter most is their spiritual health and their Christian contributions to the living world.

In more recent years there’s been a resurgence in representations of death – on tatoos –


Tattoo of memento mori by Proki Tattoo, Athens, Greece.

on jewellery –

butler and wilson crystal skull necklace

Butler and Wilson crystal necklace

on clothing, and art.

Every goth teen and biker on the planet owns skull enhanced clothing and accessories.


A more high end, artistic example is the diamond encrusted skull created by Damien Hirst in 2007 entitled For the Love of God.  It is made of platinum, diamonds and human teeth and sold in 2007 for a reported £50 million.



For the Love of God by Damien Hirst, 2007

Only Death (excerpt)

by Pablo Neruda

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.


In my next post I’ll be showing you a painting by Bernard Safran that plays with the concept of memento mori.

* Death and Art: Europe 1200 – 1530 by Eleanor Townsend, V & A Publishing 2009


Grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta

Grizzly sow with cubs wikipedia commons

Grizzly sow with cubs

My personal bear stories don’t involve anyone being mangled or killed – sorry if you’re disappointed… my stories are really about near misses – which are scary enough.

Have you ever looked at the bears at the zoo where you can study their giant fangs and jaws and claws up close and in safety, and then imagine what might have happened to you if you hadn’t been so lucky out there in the wilderness?


Rocky Mountain grizzlies are formidable animals that can weigh between 250kg to 320kg (or 550lbs to 705 lbs). They have enormous fangs and claws as you can see in these images – the claws can grow up to 10cm (or 8″) long. They have a strong sense of smell, and very good vision, and can run faster than any human – up or down a mountain. image from Please also see Parks Canada’s informative website:

For the last 18 years I’ve lived in Calgary, Alberta, about an hour from the wild and rugged Rocky Mountains. In fact, I can see a huge expanse of the Rockies from the back of my house – they are always spectacular – sometimes pink and purple, sometimes deep blue and white – ever changing, and always magnificent.

The Rocky Mountains as seen from Calgary at sunset

The Rocky Mountains as seen from my backyard in Calgary at sunset.

I sometimes like to think about the wild animals out there climbing up those giant mountains – the cougars, mountain goats and sheep, the elk and the bears. It probably comes from childhood car rides and singing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” endlessly in the back seat, and imagining a bear climbing up one side of a mountain “to see what he could see” and then climbing down the other side, and then on to the next. With the huge expanse of mountains out my back door, there must be quite a few bears going up and down those mountains…

Nature is overwhelming out there – the scale of it is huge and the wilderness is dangerous.

Cascade Mountain Banff, Alberta

Cascade Mountain in Banff, Alberta. Those “little” trees are between 20 and 40 meters tall (65 feet to 131 feet). Cascade Mountain is a nice size mountain coming in at 2,998m (9,836 ft) – but there are many more in Alberta that top it for size and height – take Mt. Columbia at 3,747m (12,293 ft) or Mt. Assiniboine at 3,616m (11,864 ft).

Smart people here know that you don’t go out into the wilderness alone unless you have some serious survival skills, or like many of the ranchers here, you have a rifle with you  – just in case you accidentally run into one of several large mammals that live here that are capable of killing you with one swift blow.

When our kids were small and we’d go hiking with them in the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country, my husband constantly worried about bear encounters every time we were hiking a trail with no one else in sight. I was stupidly thinking about how much I’d love to see a grizzly bear – and he was worrying about how fast he could run with both kids in his arms or whether he’d have to sacrifice his life to save ours. We did always carry bear bells and we were always a noisy bunch – especially when the kids got hot, tired and cranky. Most of the time any animal within several miles hearing distance knew we were coming and could move away.

grizzly zmescience

A super angry Grizzly bear – image from zmescience.

So it was surprising that once we did almost walk into a grizzly. We were hiking a trail in Kananaskis in the low lands, through brush and along a lazy creek, when suddenly a couple of people ran into us from a perpendicular trail hysterically screaming “Grizzly – Grizzly!!”. It was just meters from where we were standing – we could see and hear something rustling in there…

We froze in a moment of frightened panic and then we turned and booted it out of there as fast as our legs could carry us dragging our little girls all the way back to the car, breathlessly warning whoever we ran into to get as far away as they could from that area. (we reported the location of the bear to a warden – just like you’re supposed to do).

Another time we were at Morraine Lake (in Banff) and took a trail we’d never been on before that led to a place called Consolation Lakes. The trail was narrow and several kilometers long, with a long portion of it through forest – it was rated easy because there was little or no climb in elevation. We hadn’t researched it much and didn’t realize that the area at the end of the trail was a popular feeding and lounging spot for grizzlies. In fact it wasn’t til we got to the final destination of the trail (an area with an open flooded water course and huge house sized boulders), that we read an information sign and realized we had three little kids a long way from civilization in the middle of a grizzly resort and spa.

Bear Country Parks Canada leaflet

What to do if you encounter a bear… never run… play dead… or don’t play dead… fight back… no, talk calmly… use bear spray… no, don’t use bear spray… climb a tree… only if its over 30 feet high? I don’t remember – oops… The information in all my guide books and pamphlets is confusing but life saving, if you have the time to think before you’re attacked, and you are clear headed and understand bear psychology. The best advice is to avoid bears all the time. Image: page from a Parks Canada leaflet.

With our two little girls and my nephew on this hike, I suddenly was forced to confront the terrifying reality that my husband had long been worrying about – how would we survive running into a grizzly or two or three… which kid would I be able to carry and run like Hell with? (running is not recommended by the way – I just think in a moment of panic its what I’d do).

I’m not sure why the trail was open back then at all – its since been closed pretty much on a yearly basis during bear season (July through October) to groups of no less than 4 and as I recall some years, restricted to groups of four (or even 6) on horseback (and a huge fine if you don’t follow the rules). Its not just that grizzlies frequent the area and its not safe for people on foot, but primarily to allow the animals the freedom to live undisturbed in their natural environment.

Dismemberment and death go hand in hand with grizzly encounters. That’s why the parks are so careful to close off areas known to be grazing grounds of the bears and why they include extensive instructions in their park leaflets about what to do if you do find yourself face to face with one. Just try remembering what to do while encountering a bear – its all very confusing.

I love bears and I am saddened to hear when any bear dies because of an unexpected encounter with a careless person. (If a bear kills someone then it is often hunted down and killed too because it is considered too dangerous to leave in the wild.)

We go out into their territories and expect them to please have the courtesy not to be maddened when we tromp up to them or their babies. They are only doing what comes naturally to them.

grizzly in banff parks canada

Grizzly bear in Banff National Park. Photograph by Alex Taylor, Parks

Though there are black bears here too, people don’t seem quite so intimidated or terrified of them, even though an angered black bear can do serious damage to a human too. Perhaps its because compared to a grizzly, a black bear mistakenly seems like a teddy bear.

from Bear Country pamphlet, Parks Canada

from Parks Canada

However, a bear is a bear is a bear…

If you plan to go out for a hike in the mountains, always check the trail head closure signs and respect them – stay on the human trails, and remember to remember what to do if you meet a bear in the woods.

Over the years I’ve had my fill of grizzly sitings from the safety of my car while driving north to Jasper, and through British Columbia – so I’m good now – I don’t need or want to see a grizzly bear up close and personal in the wild, thank you very much!