19th-Century Skeleton Alarm Clock Reminded People Daily of the Shortness of Life: An Introduction to the Memento Mori

Vic­to­ri­an cul­ture can seem grim and even ghoul­ish to us youth-obsessed, death-deny­ing 21st cen­tu­ry mod­erns. The tra­di­tion of death pho­tog­ra­phy, for exam­ple, both fas­ci­nates and repels us, espe­cial­ly por­trai­ture of deceased chil­dren. But the prac­tice “became increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar,” notes the BBC, as “Vic­to­ri­an nurs­eries were plagued by measles, diph­the­ria, scar­let fever, rubella—all of which could be,” and too often were, “fatal.”

Adults did not fare much bet­ter when it came to the epi­dem­ic spread of killer dis­eases. Sur­round­ed inescapably by death, Vic­to­ri­ans coped by invest­ing their world with totemic sym­bols, cul­tur­al arti­facts known as memen­to mori, mean­ing “remem­ber, you must die.” Tuber­cu­lo­sis, cholera, influen­za… at any moment, one might take ill and waste away, and there would like­ly be lit­tle med­ical sci­ence could do about it.

Per­haps the best approach, then, was an accep­tance of death while in the bloom of health, in order to not waste the moment and to learn to pay atten­tion to what mat­tered while one could. Memen­to mori draw­ings, paint­ings, jew­el­ry, pho­tographs, and trin­kets have pop­u­lat­ed Euro­pean cul­tur­al his­to­ry for cen­turies; death as an ever-present com­pan­ion, not to be hid­den away and feared but solemn­ly, respect­ful­ly giv­en its due.

Or maybe not so respect­ful­ly, as the case may be. Some of these nov­el­ties, like the skele­ton alarm clock at the top, look more like they belong at the bot­tom of a fish tank than a prop­er par­lor man­tle. “Pre­sum­ably when the alarm went off,” writes Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “the skele­ton would shake its bones.” Wake up, life is short, you could die at any time. “Part of the col­lec­tions of Sci­ence Muse­um, Lon­don, it’s believed to be of Eng­lish ori­gin and date between 1840 and 1900.”

The Tim Bur­ton-esque tchotchke appeared in a 2014 British Library exhib­it called Ter­ror and Won­der: The Goth­ic Imag­i­na­tion, with many oth­er such objects of vary­ing degrees of artistry: “200 objects from a span of 250 years, all cen­tered on the Goth­ic tra­di­tion in art, lit­er­a­ture, music, fash­ion, and most recent­ly film.” Memen­to mori arti­facts offer vis­cer­al reminders that real, dai­ly con­fronta­tions with dis­ease and death were “at the base of much of Goth­ic lit­er­a­ture and art.”

Where we now tend to read the Goth­ic as pri­mar­i­ly reflec­tive of social, cul­tur­al, and reli­gious anx­i­eties, the preva­lence of memen­to mori in Euro­pean homes both low and high (such as Mary Queen of Scots’ skull watch, in an 1896 illus­tra­tion above) shows us just how much the gloomy strain of think­ing that became the mod­ern hor­ror genre derives from a desire to con­front mor­tal­i­ty head on, so to speak, and find­ing that look­ing death in the face brings on ancient uncan­ny dread as much as healthy gal­lows humor and sto­ic, stiff-upper-lip reck­on­ing with the ulti­mate fact of life.

via Lind­sey Fitzhar­ris

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Artist Cro­chets a Life-Size, Anatom­i­cal­ly-Cor­rect Skele­ton, Com­plete with Organs

Cel­e­brate The Day of the Dead with The Clas­sic Skele­ton Art of José Guadalupe Posa­da

Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Har­vard Libraries (and Else­where in Boston)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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