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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology


Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Memento Mori in Modern America

In life, only one thing is truly certain – eventual death. Yet, most of us choose to not focus on this fact. When we are faced with the sudden death of someone we love, many people choose to memorialize their loved ones through physical objects. A term derived from Latin, memento mori are tokens of a passed person's life.


A popular memorialization object, especially for someone whose death really stands out against the ordinary, like a sudden death or a young person who battled a long illness, is a memorial band. Below is an example of a memorial bracelet for my brother who died in a plane crash at 14 years old, named Connor Mantsch.

memento band

The band is worn, showing signs of being used in sun and rain.

The band is red, a tribute to his favorite color, and the text features his full name, his birth and death dates, some representative symbols, and the title of a poem that he wrote. By wearing this bracelet on a daily basis, his loved ones can "...feel that [his] spirit remains with [them], even though he is not physically present." (quote from Connor's mother.) Many people who choose to wear memorial jewelry wear the piece frequently, emphasizing the emotional benefits of its use, rather than keeping it in perfect condition. This popular modern practice of mourning is similar to the Victorian practice of keeping a lock of hair or a tooth from a dead loved one and turning it into a piece of jewelry, like a necklace for daily wear. These emotion-laded relics permitted a person's materiality to be carried on a day-to-day basis after death.

Has someone you love who has passed, like a grandparent or parent, ever willed you a material object? It's a modern American ritual to create a will that allows one's loved ones to not only become owners of wealth and property, but also smaller objects like wedding rings and clothing after one's death. Psychologists agree that the handing down of material objects can be an effective way of moving through the universal experience of grief. Another example of this need for materiality is found in the keeping of a deceased loved one's clothing.

memento shirt

Connor's soccer jersey was gifted to his family by his high school after his passing.

The jersey is stained, showing evidence of typical young male exuberance, and has not been washed. This is a common theme in the preservation of the clothing of a deceased person, as loved ones can subconsciously feel that they can preserve the person's memory better without making any changes to what they have left behind. Humans have an innate need to know that their loved ones' memories remain with them after death, even if they are no longer present and alive. They are able to find that link between the living and the dead through material objects left behind.