The Memento Mori Skull Rosary
We sometimes get questions on the meaning of rosaries with skulls. Is it sacrilegious or is it anti-Catholic? Surprisingly, it’s quite opposite to that. The skull bead on a rosary is meant to provide a focus for contemplating one’s mortality. A memento mori rosary reminds us of our mortality and that we will one day die and stand before the Lord Jesus, our soul awaiting His judgment. The Latin phrase Memento Mori means “Remember your death”, and it is a spiritual practice of acknowledging your mortality and thus a reminder to live your life on earth virtuously. Certainly, a skull rosary is not for everyone as some people may find it morbid.
The use of symbolic skulls in rosaries and chaplets dates all the way back to the late middle ages (1050 - 1500). They were particularly popular in Italy, Germany, and Mexico with priests, nuns, and monks. But, skulls on rosaries have been used for hundreds of years, and historical art and doctrine supports the use of skulls on the rosary.
The Skull used in Religious Art
There are many depictions in paintings of Saints with skulls. Some crucifixes depict a skull at the bottom, to signify Christ’s victory over death. Some rosaries feature a skull bead to serve as a “Memento Mori,” or a reminder that one’s life is not infinite.
There are also depictions of the crucifixion that show a skull at the base of the cross. The Hebrew name of the location Christ was crucified was “Golgotha” and it’s meaning is “Place of the Skull”. It is believed that Adam was buried in that same location, so some use the symbolic skull to signify the first man created by God and Christ's gift to mortal man.
References to the "Memento Mori" in Catholic writings
The Latin phrase "Memento Mori", meaning “Remember you must die”, was influential in art and religious life dating back to Medieval Europe. It is a reminder both of our mortality and of the judgment that will follow our death.
From the Canticle of the Sun written by St. Francis of Assisi:
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
And St. Benedict of Nursia calls us to:
Fear the Day of Judgment: be in dread of hell. Ardently desire everlasting life with deep spiritual longing.
Keep death daily before your eyes. (Rule of Benedict 4:44-47).
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And finally, in our “Hail Mary” prayer, there is a reference to our mortality:
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.