Memento mori

Maybe because today is Sunday, a religious day of rest in this wee Christian hamlet of Landschlacht, that my thoughts turn to the question of Death and some discoveries I made on this subject during my explorations of Schaffhausen of late.

Death is viewed different ways by different people.

Some view it with great fear and reluctance for it represents the end of identity.

All that we were, all that we could have been, ceases to exist, save for the fading memories of those left behind.

Others view this simply as an inevitable part of the circle of life. As people die, others are born.

Some view Death as a relief. What pain and sorrow this life may have presented us are no longer experienced.

Some believe that this life is simply a staging ground before an afterlife.

Personally. I hope to avoid Death´s cold embrace for as long as possible, if for no other reason, I am ever curious as to what the future continues to offer.

Death does not discriminate.

It visits individuals as well as groups.

Many settlements founded in the early and high Middle Ages still exist today.

Others disappeared again, whether because the inhabitants moved away for unknown reasons or catastrophes destroyed the dwellings and left them desolate.

Early medieval cemeteries from the 5th to the 8th century are known to have had graveyards arranged in rows for farming and village communities.

Wrapped in a burial shroud, the deceased were carried to the grave on a board or in a coffin and buried in a simple pit, stone box or a wooden chamber.

They were usually accompanied by burial objects, a pre-Christian behaviour and way of thinking that goes back thousands of years to ancient Egypt.

Clothing, food and drink were meant as a supply for the hereafter.
Weapons allowed the deceased to defend him/herself in the afterlife.

Costumes symbolized virtue.

Jewellery continued to enhance beauty.

Burial objects were supposed to enable a befitting life in the hereafter, with the understanding that “Yes, indeed, you can take it with you when you go.”

As the 6th century became the 7th century, the first objects pertaining to Christianity began to be found in cemeteries: ornamental disks with a cross, metal crosses as symbols of protection on pendants, cross motifs on disc brooches.
In the well-provided graves of the upper class, the face of the deceased was covered with a cloth bearing a cross sewn in gold plating from Italy.

From the 7th century, rich families were church donors.

They secured the right to bury their relatives in sanctified ground within the places of worship.

Cemeteries were built near the churches and traditional cemeteries discontinued.

Great distress characterised the 14th and 15th centuries.

Famines alternated with disastrous wars and, since 1346, deadly bouts of plague spread throughout Europe.

Omnipresent death dominated spiritual life.

Scared by detailed descriptions of agonising pain, people awaited the predicted Last Judgement.

Pictures and images of the Devil, Hell and Purgatory became more and more vivid.

On the other hand, Heaven took on a concrete form.

Saints mediated between God and the faithful to intercede on their behalf and offer them redemption.

Out of them all, Mary, the benevolent protector and mother of compassion, attained a unique position.

Numerous works of art, churches, chapels and altars were founded in her honour for self-salvation.

The salvation of the soul became the most urgent matter of the epoch.

The faithful thankfully accepted the offer from the church to shorten the agonising time in purgatory by devoutly donating money to the church or by purchasing pre-approved indulgences by the Papacy – a sort of “get out of purgatory” card.

An essential element of medieval devoutness was the belief in miracles, which gained enormous impetus. In its shadow followed superstition and magic.

As in other towns, many people in Schaffhausen had a meagre livelihood. Individual strokes of fate, such as disease or the breadwinner’s death, plunged many families into poverty.

Economic crises brought shortages and hardship to entire populations.

Epidemics, such as the plague, typhus or cholera, were a constant threat to people and were greatly feared.

As everywhere in Europe from the 14th century, the plague claimed many victims in Schaffhausen.

Big plague epidemics ravaged the town in 1519, 1541, 1564-65, 1611 and 1629.

In November 1628, Schaffhausen had a population of 6,000 when the epidemic broke out.

It raged until January 1630 and killed 2,600 people.

1629 was a fateful year for the family von Waldkirch. Christoph and Margaretha had six children.

Five died of the plague.

Four of them died in Schaffhausen.

The memorial plaque for the four siblings who died in Schaffhausen can still be seen today in the cloister of the Allerheiligen monastery and bears the inscription:

“Vicious the plague in this town has raged for over a year.

In August alone died from it 900 children, women and men.

We four siblings back then had to pay nature’s blame.

It can only be for love.

That is why God took us with others away.”

In the past, Death was a constant companion.

Diseases, accidents and food crises often led to a fast death, carrying off not only the elderly but also many young people.

In contrast to today, infant mortality was extremely high and life expectancy was very low.

The omnipresence of Death was echoed in art and literature.

Memento mori (remember you will die) depictions were prevalent in painting and sculpture from the Middle Ages until the Baroque period.

Motifs such as the skull, the sandglass and the burning-down candle were particularly popular.

Memento mori depictions can also be found on items of everyday use.

They remind viewers that Life and earthly goods are perishable and, at the same time, urge people to lead a goodly life in order to be prepared for dying at any time.

Social change in the course of industrialisation altered the way people handled death.

Death was increasingly driven out of the urban area and public life.

Originally Schaffhausen’s main cemetery was situated in the middle of the town.

Now the central cemetery is in an outlying suburb in the middle of a forest.

The relocation of graves was for various reasons.

Not only because of lack of space or the fear of infection by the products of decomposition, but also due to a growing taboo on the subject of death.

The town council believed they could no longer expect people to put up with the daily sight of graves and the constant reminder of Death.

Burial and mourning rituals now take place entirely in the seclusion of the forest cemetery.

In my years of hiking I have come across many dead animals and seen many cemeteries.

I have borne witness to too many funerals and have read of too many people dead “before their time”.

Even 50 years of so-called maturity still leave me with a cold chill spreading through my being when I consider Death.

I am still, like men much younger, reluctant to consider my own mortality, despite Death being the great equalizer of us all.

Personally, if I have a choice, which I doubt I will, I want to die at the grand old age of 100, with both mental and physical faculties somewhat intact.

I want to die on a sunset beach with a beautiful, way-too-young-for-me, bikini-clad babe in my right hand and a Pina Colada in my left.

I don´t want to be mourned, but instead, much like the traditional Irish way of my maternal grandmother, I want a great big drunken party to be held in my honour.

Let it be said that Adam Kerr might have been an SOB while he lived, but he could organise a good party before he left.


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