Christine Schoefer: Momento Mori

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Halloween is approaching, but Christine Schoefer doesn’t need a holiday to remind her that we are mortal. She wears that reminder on her wrist

My bracelet is a circle of skulls, seventeen hazelnut-sized bone carvings with gaping eye sockets. No two are alike; some have teeth. I wear the beads on my left wrist and they interfere with routine actions. I feel their pressure right now, as my arm rests on the table. The bracelet is not supposed to be comfortable. I put it on after my mother died last year, to symbolize my grief.

For weeks after her death, mortality saturated my perception: I noticed parched grass, squashed bugs, wrinkles on faces. My mother’s death changed my position on the lifeline: no longer a daughter, I was the family matriarch, presumably the one closest to the endpoint. A sobering thought. The mala of bone-beads became my memento mori, my personal reminder of mortality.

In medieval Europe, memento mori were public art: skulls carved into cathedral portals, scythe bearing skeletons painted on clock faces. Silently, these symbols beseeched passersby to remember impermanence. They always made me pause, for a heartbeat. Depending on my mood, they humbled or galvanized me: life is pulsing, with death in the wings.

Unexpectedly, my bracelet took on a more universal significance when the modern plague Corona started wreaking havoc. As mortality rates soared, the tiny skulls seemed to vibrate with relevance. I found myself looking at them often, polishing individual beads with my thumb.

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Now that we’re approaching All Hallows Eve, my skull circlet passes as a Halloween accessory. That’s okay because at its heart, Halloween is a memento mori holiday. This year, there might not be cavorting skeletons and princesses and robots. This year, we don’t need symbols to remind us that life is transient and therefore precious.

With a Perspective, I’m Christine Schoefer.

Christine Schoefer is a writer and educator.