The Ankou, Churchyard Guardians, Black Dogs and Memento Mori
The Ankou, Churchyard Guardians,
Black Dogs and Memento Mori
by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2014
Folklore surrounding death and spirits was widespread in the historic past, often stemming from Celtic or prehistoric pagan roots. One such deathly spirit was the ‘Ankou’, a figure closely related to the image of Death we all have in our minds, be it from books, stories, music or films we have seen.
The name of this deathly sire comes from the Bretons, the inhabitants of the Region in France known as Brittany, and the word means death. The Breton language is similar to other Celtic languages, like that of the Welsh, Irish and Cornish, which too include a similar name, and much of this area of the world, had folklore and myths associated with the ‘Ankou’.
Of course the figure known as the ‘Ankou’ is associated with the figure known as Death, the Grim Reaper, Father Time, the Dark Angel, the Harvester of Souls, The Angel of Death, Mortis, the Harbinger of Death / Doom, the Harvester of Sorrow, the Graveyard Watcher, the Graveyard Guardian, the Donn, the Lord of the Dead, the Dark One, the Agony, the Spirit of Death, the Great Leveller, the King of the Dead, the Henchman of Death, the Driver of the Dead, the Master of the Beyond and Jack O’ The Shadows. But as we will see here, the ‘Ankou’ does differ in some of the accounts of his characteristics to the usual notion of the Grim Reaper.
In the folklore of Brittany, which is a region located in north-western France, the ‘Ankou’ is often described as a tall man or sometimes a shadow, clothed in black robes, often wearing a wide brimmed hat, which covers his face, with flowing white hair. He can be hooded, or appear as a haggard, old or gaunt ghostly man, but can also be symbolised as a skeleton, sometimes headless, or with a head or skull that can rotate on its spinal axis, seeing everything anywhere around him. He is sometimes attributed as having abyss like sockets for eyes, or sometimes fiery glowing eyes. In another legend, he is said to be blind, after a meeting with St Peter, who removed the fire from his eyes. He is known to ride atop a black cart, funeral bier / hearse, coach, or even a chariot, pulled by two or sometimes four black horses, or oxen, and in coastal regions, he is sometimes described as travelling in a boat. The Ankou, like Death, is often shown wielding a scythe, but is also depicted holding a lance, spear or arrow, or even a sword. Whatever the form of his weapon, it would be used to strike down each of his victims. It is often said that his deathly tool is sharpened by the bone of one of his deceased victims. He is said to have two ghostly helpers, also with hidden features, who walk alongside his cart or coach, and help load the souls of each of the deceased, once he has collected them. The Ankou and his coach, and two henchmen, often travel along particular dark roads or lanes, in a funeral type procession. In folklore these roads or lanes may be equated with lych ways or corpse roads, which were the routes used to transport the dead to the places of burial in each locality. In the medieval period when churches existed further afield, these lych ways could travel great distances, and later when townships or groups of townships split with the mother church, and built their own dedicated church with burial rights, these lych ways sometimes became disused, and sometimes now only exist as lost ways, lost footpaths, green lanes or back roads, which were once main routeways. This has often meant that these dark paths, tracks or lanes have become linked with spirits and ghosts of the dead, supernatural phenomena, and of course the harbinger of death himself, the Ankou, who haunts these routes.
The author Walter Evans-Wentz, who was well known for his studies into Buddhism, but was also interested in all things theosophical, said in his publication ‘The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, page 218’, that:-
“The Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve.”
The Ankou appears at dusk or in the dead of night, and is active all year round, and is especially powerful on All Hallow’s Eve (31st October). The owl is often linked with his appearance, and cries out when he is near, and the bird is also known in Brittany as ‘the Ankou Bird’, or ‘the Death Bird’.
Memento Mori Gravestones at Farndon and Astbury, Cheshire
(notice the arrow and scythe symbol as well as the hourglass on the Astbury example)
To see the Ankou was an omen of death, and predicted your imminent demise, as he would often arrive when the dying were about to pass. He collected the souls of the dead, and was known to protect graveyards and the souls that exist in and around them.
In Brittany, there are many ossuaries (a building which was used as the final resting place for skeletal remains, i.e. bones of the dead), which have carved stone figures in the guise of the Ankou, who protects those whose remains lie inside. He can be heard sometimes protecting the dead that rest inside a cemetery, when sepulchral shrieks or wails cry out, warning those who wish to disturb the dead that he stands as guard, immortally, and is ready to strike them down.
When the Ankou is about to strike the near dead at home, it is said that the living hear a creaking wheel like noise or squeaking axle outside their house, which is often said to be from the ‘Wheelbarrow of Ankou’, when he comes to collect the souls of the dead. He is known to often knock at the door, and just before entering, give out a wail like a ‘Banshee’ (a ‘banshee’ is a mythological female spirit of Ireland, which wails loudly when someone is about to die), which can be heard to some of the living, to pre-warn them that death is at the entrance, before entering the door. He is also occasionally seen as a ghostly figure as he passes over the threshold. Some say he only collects those souls which were lost in each parish, but he was also known to take unwary travellers or sinful souls walking his remote paths alone. It is also said that if you cross one of his routes, unknowing of him being in the locality, you or a relative shall die. It is said that those that remain scornful of his existence, are reminded of his relentless and all conquering duty, and no one can escape, for he shall collect all those souls, on the threshold of the entranceway to judgment and whichever afterlife.
On some of the ossuaries in Brittany, his form is accompanied by words, which translate as:- “Remember man that you are dust”, “Death, judgment, cold hell when man thinks he must tremble”, and the deathly strong statement that:- “I will kill you all!”
If you have the misfortune of coming across him, and are able to defend yourself or even attack him, it will be of no avail, for you will have only temporarily delayed the inevitable, for those that have crossed the Ankou, die very soon after. If you make the mistake of exchanging words with him, this too may mean your death, or the death of a loved one imminently. However, if a person assists the Ankou in his duties, they are left with their life, but as anyone touched ever so slightly by the hand of death, he rewards them with his mark, and their hair turns white overnight.
It is said that each parish had its own Ankou, or King of the Dead, and that the last man to die each year, became the Ankou, till the next year, and was then charged with the duty of collecting the souls of his parish’s dead, before he could move on to the afterlife. It is also said, quite rarely, that if the cemetery closes, that the last person buried there becomes the Ankou for not just a year, but from then on for the whole of the parish, till the end.
The ‘Old Irish’ had a proverb about him:- “When Ankou comes, he will not go away empty.” Also, if in a particular parish many had died in one year, the folk often said about the Ankou of that year:- “on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.”
The number of Ankou that have existed in each parish over time, in whole regions and countries over the ages, must be massive in number, and one wonders if they all crossed over, or if there is an army of them across the land. It could also be considered, that those with the misfortune, if it is in fact a misfortune to become an Ankou, are somehow part of a never ending cycle or well of souls, who have become hosts to the Angel of Death, and somehow are forever linked with him and his secrets, marked out from the rest, who died at a time which meant they could never be an Ankou.
This does make you wonder why on earth the Hurleston family whose vault exists behind the church of St Peter’s at Plemstall, near Chester, in Cheshire, and directly behind the altar, but just outside the building, decorated their chest tomb memorial with images of Death or the Ankou?
The Hurleston Family Chest Tomb Memorial at St Peter’s Church at Plemstall
Did some gentry, who may have had access to esoteric books, know something that others did not, and actually invited the Ankou to take them into his embrace, so that they too, became like the Angel of Death?
I was once told of a story whilst a child that my grandfather had spoken of, which he had always remembered from his childhood days whilst living with his parents and siblings at a cottage in Gellideg, a hamlet on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, once a coal and iron mining town in the valleys of South Wales, about an old lady who lived in the row of cottages.
He said that the old lady often reported of seeing a phantom funeral procession pass down the old track behind the cottages on the old road to Swansea, and that she always remarked that someone in the locality would soon be dead, and just as she prophesised, there was a death, usually within days or within the week that the ghostly horse drawn funeral cart was seen!
Of course this story is not uncommon across the country, as many people will have read or will have even heard from older members of their family of such a spectacle. It always announced the demise of a neighbour, and often it was an elderly person whom saw such a phantom omen, themselves closer to the secrets of the grave than us captivated children whom hear of such.
Such similar stories include a funeral procession or a death coach, and have been told in England and Wales since the Middle Ages. Sometimes these black coaches when linked with stately homes and the gentry. Tales report that these coaches are often in the control of a figure viewed as Death, or a headless ghoul, with black horses drawing the coach through the lanes and up the drives of estates, and they always foretell a death within the family. So just like the folklore surrounding the Ankou, these stories still persist in a similar form through the ages.
Also throughout my life I have sometimes been the receiver of premonitions of death or sudden illness, often whilst in a dream state, and often these premonitions have come true, either within days or within that week.
I have also on occasion, in the dead of night, heard not a cart stop outside my home, but horses hooves, and then a foreboding feeling comes over me, and I just know that Death has come to visit, but not to take someone away, but rather to let me know that a family relative or friend has died, acting more like a messenger, than a taker of life.
I think many of us have had similar experiences, which mark out the story of the Ankou and that of Death, as something that should be remembered, because still today, those that hear them, just know that there is much more to this folklore than modern society admits.
It is even said that the Ankou might be Cain, the Biblical character and first child of Adam and Eve, who was linked with agriculture and crops, as well as smiths, and killed his brother, Abel, and thus was cursed to walk the darkness as a wandering ghoul searching for those about to die, for the whole of time. It is also worth noting that the Coptic Church celebrates Abel’s feast day on the 28th of December, a date lying at the end of the yearly calendar.
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Whatever the story, the Ankou is waiting out there to take each of us to our deathly abode, whether we like it or not, at least if you believe the folklore, but if you don’t, it would be prudent just to remember that all myth and legend is based somewhere along its generationally told and retold account, on some sort of original fact, and that fact is that we all must die.
In British Folklore and hence European and even New World superstitions, there has always been a tradition that each and every historic graveyard, and even some modern cemeteries have what is known as a ‘Churchyard Guardian’ or ‘Church Grim’.
This guardian is in the majority always said to be the first person that has been buried at the graveyard, and that person’s soul is then charged with the duty of watching over all who were interred into the ground after them, to keep them safe from evil and their bodies from being used by the Devil, his demons, or other malevolent creatures.
This custom was well known in the medieval period, and priests often felt it unholy and wrong to curse a person’s soul, who they were charged with looking after in life and death, spiritually, to force them to watch over the graves of those on consecrated ground for eternity, and possibly fear the consequential revenge those spirits might carry out, because of that unwanted, unwarranted and forced eternal curse. Thus before any human remains were buried upon the hallowed ground, an animal, usually a dog was buried as a substitute, who would then act as the guardian over the dead, and bark and scare away any evil doers who wished to defile those resting in the hallowed earth. Other animals might also be buried such as ravens, rams, lambs, pigs, horses or cockerels. Their interment was usually upon the north side of the graveyard, although sometimes beneath the foundation stone or underneath the altar. These ‘Churchyard Guardians’ sometimes ring the church bells, to signify that a death is imminent or that a soul is departing at a funeral.
These ‘Church Grim’ dogs are prolific in British folklore and many stories and sightings have been reported over the ages of their spectral forms.
This was not unusual in times before the Victorian period, as animals were often used as protective guardians not just of graveyards, but also of homes. It had been a common custom to hide objects in the structure of a building, for magical defence, such as concealed shoes, charms and witch bottles. These objects were used to draw in and trap the evil intentions invoked against the home’s occupants. But as well as these protective devices, the bodies of mummified cats, horse’s heads, dog’s skulls, etc, were often placed in the fabric of a building to achieve the same, and so those animals spirits would protect the inhabitants of the home over their lifetimes.
Quite often in the modern age when old houses have been renovated or repaired, these objects and sometimes animals remains have been discovered, and sometimes removed or occasionally left in place, if their function was understood. Of course in the modern era, removing these objects or mummified animals, in the eyes of our forebears would have been idiotic, because you would then be practically welcoming evil into your home. However, some people who have come across these objects have then replaced them with modern alternatives, carrying on the superstition because they believe in it, or because they don’t want to take the chance, or just to be part of this interesting practice, and carry on this historic albeit superstitious custom.
Churchyard Guardians may also be the complete opposite of the first buried, some folk believed that it was not the first person buried who would become the human ‘Church Grim’, but the last person buried in a graveyard / cemetery, and therefore be doomed for the whole of eternity to watch over those buried before them, so remember to choose your resting place carefully.
The animal ‘Church Grim’, the dog which was often substituted for the human ‘Churchyard Guardian’ / ‘Church Grim’, has appeared throughout British folklore, and are now commonly found in ghostly tales as a ‘Black Dog’ who haunts specific localities across the country.
‘Black Dog’ by Charles E S Fairey, 2008
These ‘Black Dogs’ often take the form of a large shaggy black furred dog, often with large flaming eyes, which roam within churchyards or in the remote or dark lanes near churchyards, at boundaries, at crossroads, in dark woods or by water. They patrol their locality, protecting the dead, or even signifying the death of those who are unlucky enough to meet or see one. Although sometimes they have been known not just as an omen of death or a protector of the dead, but exist to terrify victims, for some reason or another, but not bringing death, or signifying an illness to the beholder. These spectral dogs have also protected travellers who are alone on their journey through the dark lanes of the country or over desolate moors, especially women on their own. They are often running or galloping across the countryside, with a supernatural speed, and sometimes have been said to speak.
Black Dogs and Hellhounds have been said to guard the entranceway to the underworld / the world of the dead, and are charged with specific duties related to the afterlife, often hunting down lost souls, or devouring the wicked, or those who try to cross the divide. Cerberus, the Greek three headed dog is one such hellhound, the loyal watchdog of Hades.
Stories of sightings and meetings of these spectral Black Dogs abound in nearly all of the counties of England and Wales, and some famous examples exist, most notably ‘Black Shuck’ of East Anglia, as well as ‘Gwyllgi’ (the Welsh ‘Dog of Darkness’), ‘Gally-trot’, ‘Padfoot’, ‘Gytrash’ and ‘Skriker’. Black Shuck is also believed to have been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous work, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ featuring his infamous detective, Sherlock Holmes.
In Yorkshire and other parts of northern England, the name given to these spectral hounds is ‘Barghest’, who is a monstrous black dog with huge teeth and claws, and howls with fiery eyes. He is known to haunt towns including that of Whitby, and its iconic and inspiring gothic ruined abbey. It is said that he has been known to cause all the dogs within a town to chase through the town barking, running alongside him.
Black Dogs are also associated with places of execution, which are often by roads, often at crossroads or by water, and therefore linked with lost souls, who have been put to death and left for the ravenous birds and scavenging wild dogs, to devour whilst outside the protection of hallowed ground. These sites may have been lost to history, or recorded as sites of Gibbets on old maps, or attributed with the name of ‘Gibbet Hill’ or ‘Hanging Field’, and sometimes mentioned in historic records as hanging trees.
The ‘Ankou’, who we met above, also like the Black Dog, sometimes had fiery eyes, and as we know travelled with his dark horse drawn coach. However, in some folklore, he has another helper, other than his two spectral companions, in the form of a black hound, who runs in front of the deathly procession, when out on his death bringing journeys.
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Now if we look at all the information above, we can see that the ‘Ankou’, the ‘Churchyard Guardian’ / ‘Church Grim’, and the ‘Black Dog’ are not three separate unrelated entities, but most likely one and the same. It just means that through the customs, practices, traditions and folklore, people grew wise to the curses of being the Graveyard Guardian, and in some places rather than it being a human each year, or forever, they made sure that an animal, usually a dog, would be charged with the protection of their ancestors and deceased loved ones. Or for those with a dark view of the world, all these dark entities are in league with each other, and possess esoteric qualities, and are part of the army of the God of Death.
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In Cheshire, there are two stories of Black Dogs recorded in folklore, one is a recent early 20th Century tale from Godley Green near Hyde, in the north of the County, where the spectral hound was reported as being ‘as big as a cow’, with huge yellow piercing eyes, and equipped with a foaming mouth and wallowing tongue. As with other ‘Church Grim’, and the ‘Ankou’, this hound gave out a terrifying sound as it bayed, and followed a lonely gentleman whilst travelling, however, luckily he did not meet his demise soon after, as is the case with other omens of death.
The other Cheshire Black Dog haunts the quaint historic village of Barthomley in the south of the County. This Black Dog roams the lane by the ancient Church of St Bertoline, in front of the historic black and white public house known as the White Lion, and down past the Old Rectory.
The White Lion Inn at Barthomley, Winter 2009
The village itself is famous for the massacre which took place there in the English Civil War when a group of Royalist soldiers murdered some of the inhabitants who had taken refuge in the church, and subsequently the tower, until they were smoked out and then had their throats slit. St Bertoline’s has since been known as the ‘Church of the Massacre’.
St Bertoline’s Church, aka ‘The Church of the Massacre’, Barthomley
As well as the ‘Church Grim’ Black Dog, another apparition can be viewed walking the fields behind the church, and is known locally as the White Lady. No one knows who she is or what she is doing, but in Irish folklore these ‘White Lady’ ghosts of which there are numerous examples in the British Isles, are thought to be connected with the malevolent deities known as fairies and therefore associated with the spirits of the dead. Pale ghosts are also linked with the ‘Church Grim’ as well, see above.
‘The Black Dog of Barthomley’
by Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes, 2008
When the ‘Black Dog of Barthomley’ is seen galloping toward an unlucky person, usually around dusk, it surely means the imminent demise of the viewer, as this Cheshire Black Dog is definitely an omen of death.
I even wrote a poem based upon this spectral Black Dog, but also linked it with the legend that the last wolf in England was killed in Barthomley Wood, which if you would like to read appears at the following link:- The Black Dog.
The Cheshire author Frederick Woods in his ‘Cheshire: Ghosts & Legends, 1990’ expands on these ‘Black Dogs’, telling us that they are known as the “Gabrel Ratchets”, and that they are:-
“A superstition that goes back to the days of early myth. Gabrel is an old word for a corpse, and a ratchet is a hound; these death-hounds ride through the night sky, followed by a ghostly hunter, and to see them is a forewarning of death. Various interpretations have been put forward: it is the Devil riding out searching for lost souls; it is an old wicked squire, condemned to haunt his land through eternity for past misdeeds; it is Herne the Hunter with his pack. In fact, it is Odin, and the belief in the Gabrel Ratchets (or whatever their local name is) is common to all countries where Norse mythology has taken hold.”
To explain his interpretation, we have to look at Norse Mythology and the identity of these hounds of death.
We should all know that Odin was the All-father of the gods and ruled Asgard, the home of the Aesir, his and his tribe of gods, heavenly abode. We may also know that according to folklore, Odin often took part in what is called the ‘Wild Hunt’, where he and his fellow spectral huntsmen would ride across the sky on their horses, with their hounds in hot pursuit. The huntsmen are often revealed as the dead or the malevolent creatures known as fairies, which are connected with the dead. For those who saw this phantasm, it meant that a disaster was about to strike, such as war or plague, but just like the ‘Ankou’ or ‘Black Dog’ it also signified imminent death to those who had the unfortunate luck to witness it, and those same Wild Hunt hounds may equate to the spectral ‘Black Dogs’.
Interestingly, the Wild Hunt has also been known as ‘Cain’s Hunt’, bringing the Biblical figure that has sometimes been linked with the ‘Ankou’ back into the story.
Odin had an eight legged steed known as Sleipnir, as well as two ravens called Huginn and Muninn, but whilst hunting, and often alone, he is accompanied by two hunting dogs. Odin takes part in the Wild Hunt according to tradition to hunt down and kill, along with his dogs, a woman who is a forest dweller. Now what could be linked to this lady like forest dweller is another interesting Norse deity, Fenrir, the monstrous wolf who slays Odin and brings about Ragnarok. Because it is said in the Poetic Edda, that Fenrir is one of a brood, bred by an old woman, in a forest, and could be surmised as a creature much like the Devil, and thus if Odin’s hunting dogs can find the woman, they can stop or delay the inevitable. The story of Ragnarok does bear some similarities to the story of Cain and Abel, and the subsequent aftermath and effect upon the offspring of both.
We must also note that other names for Odin were ‘Grimmr’ and ‘Grim’, in reference to his fierceness and fury. He was also known as a gatherer of the dead, i.e. like the later Grim Reaper, in a guise such as outlined above, as the Huntsman and the Wild Hunt, chasing down the dead.
However, a much older mythology exists which is more likely the forebear of all the Black Dog’s qualities and that is the Egyptian God known as ‘Anubis’.
He was originally known as Anpu or Inpu, and was originally known as the ‘lord of the sacred land’ and a guardian and protector of the dead, as well as a god of the underworld, before he was linked with the funerary rites and embalming process of the deceased. In some myths he led the dead to the halls of judgment, and was the patron of lost souls, and along with the Eye of Horus guided the dead to the God of the Underworld, Osiris. He would protect the dead at their burial, both in the physical world as well as the spiritual, and kept watch over them, and guarded the entranceway to the Underworld.
Before Anubis was regarded as being Jackal headed, mixing in the God Wepwawet with his form, he was of the shape of a black furred wild dog. Wild dogs as were jackals were often seen prowling around graveyards, looking for edible remains, reinforcing that the dog and the dead were associated in the ancient minds of the Egyptians. This directly equates with what we still know now, that like any pet dog these days, dogs will eat any dead creatures they find, as well as living animals, if given a chance by their owners.
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So, now we see that the Black Dog, who is also a Churchyard Guardian, and also similar to the Grim Reaping ‘Ankou’, are part of the one and same story, and part of an ancient stream of thought, which has been recorded in folklore, tradition, custom and practice throughout the human historic psyche, and thus teaches us, the living, that we must remember that whatever ‘Death’s’ form, he is waiting for us all, whether or not we wish to assist him, it seems he decides, and we may fatally cross his path too early, or may try and deny the inevitable, to no avail.
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A quote spoken by the late Sir Simon Marsden in his 60 minute Granada Television documentary called ‘Ghosthunter’, reminds us that we shouldn’t be ignorant of what our ancestors believed, and gives a stark warning to those who have shunned the superstitions and folklore of our forebears:-
“At our Peril, we ignore the beliefs of souls who have gone before us...”
Sir Simon Marsden was a celebrated and famous photographer, specialising in eerie, atmospheric and supernatural subjects for his camera’s inspiration, publishing many books connected to the tales, myths and legends connected with the ghostly places he visited, accompanied with his brilliant spectral infra red photographs, with much verse and discussion of the subject of death and the spectre’s shadows.
Sabine Baring-Gould, a respected English Anglican Priest, antiquarian, novelist and eclectic scholar in his ‘A Book of Brittany, 1901, page 25’ tells us about how death was so much part of life in the past, and says that:-
“The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with Death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead, and seal their vows over the tombs. It is but of quite recent times that the association of the departed with the affairs of the living has become less intimate.”
“Death Is The Waye To Life”
Today, like the quote from 1901 above, death is shunned by the majority of people, society has become fearful of the inevitable end, unlike our ancestors, who embraced death because it was all around them.
The majority hold the modern Western viewpoint of the process of dying, which can be said in the majority of cases, to deny it will happen, and stupidly hope in immortality, and be blind and ignorant of something which is entirely natural and part of life. This has especially been the case since the Victorian Era, previous to this time, familiarity with death was the norm, people often died young, and everyone was surrounded by death, and it was embraced as part of life more so than today. Just look at the Black Death and the millions who perished in Medieval Europe, all around each individual that survived, was the shadow of Death.
Those individuals that still believe in something spiritual, but do not fear death, but embrace it, unlike the above who try to deny the inevitable, whether spiritual or not, view death as just a doorway to pass through on the way to the afterlife, but the majority of these folk seldom look deeply into what it may mean, and if there are any preparations they can make, spiritually.
However, there are a few who understand the spiritual preparation that death demands, and come to know themselves through considered reflection and learning, which brings us onto ‘Memento Mori’.
‘Memento Mori’ is a phrase which means ‘remember death’, and was a medieval theory to teach the living that they should reflect upon mortality, and consider the vanity of the earthly abode, and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. There are many phrases, images and symbols related to death, which we now include under the ‘Memento Mori’ banner.
People who come to realise the importance of this act of dying through perfecting their character, and ultimately knowing themselves, and understanding the detachment from this life, and understanding the virtue of preparing themselves for the afterlife. As well as grasping the immortality of their own soul, and its salvation and thus its place within the spiritual landscape. Such as the three realms, which exist in many religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, and other world belief systems, as the Earth, Heaven and Hell; view death more as a friend than a foe.
Such phrases as “Remember Man that you are dust and unto the dust you shall return”, “Remember that thou shalt die”, and “Prepare to meet thy God”, remind us of the fragility of life, and that we must try and learn how we should prepare ourselves for the hereafter, and the transition from a physical realm to a spiritual realm, before it is too late.
The most famous Memento Mori phrase or be it a rhyme is:-
“Ring a ring a roses,
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down”
In the Victorian Era, ceramic plaques were often hung in the home, which read “Thou God sees’t Me”, and “Prepare to meet thy God”, to remind us of the hereafter, and what must be achieved.
In Cheshire, there are numerous examples of Memento Mori, such as the ‘well known’ coffin in the wall of the ruined part of St John’s Church in Chester, with the inscription of “Dust to Dust”, see below left. As well as numerous gravestones in the many churchyards across the county, depicting images of death, or his symbols, as well as a beautiful Memento Mori Poem inscribed on a wall of a chest-tomb at St Margaret’s Church in Wrenbury, which reads:-
"Who on this Should cast an Eye,
Think of your own Mortality,
Remember that you follow must
And lie as we do in the dust."
Another unusual object which is associated with Memento Mori was the practice of wearing ‘Mourning Rings’, which was a popular practice in Victorian times and before. They were finger rings worn in memory of a loved one who had died. They sometimes have symbols of death moulded into them, and can be made from gold or silver, often with black enamel patterning, and often have an inscription on the inside of the band, recording the name of the deceased, sometimes the date, and sometimes an image of them, or a strand of their hair under a black gemstone, and even sometimes a motto.
In Cheshire, one such ring was found near Middlewich, which dated to the 17th Century, and was found by a friend of mine. It is now exhibited in a local museum for the public to view, and is inscribed with a message, which I used above as a subtitle, which is:-
"Death is the waye to Life"
I will now leave you with two phrases to think about, whilst reflecting upon all of the above:-
“Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.”
"What will be, will be."
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations