Skip to main content
The Collation

Dancing Skeletons and Human Hair: Remembrance, Memento Mori, and Material Culture

How do you remember loved ones who have passed away or family members who have scattered across the four winds? Today if we lose someone, we turn to photos, family films, emails, texts, voicemails, screenshots from Skype or Facetime, letters, birthday cards, Facebook profiles (there are currently 30 million active “Remembrance” profiles for the deceased and counting), and of course, the memories and stories we share with one another. Parts and pieces of them surround us in a diverse and somewhat dizzying bricolage of material, both digital and physical. The choice to hold onto someone’s memory is made for us, as we are continuously surrounded by a multitude of manifestations of their prior life: we couldn’t forget them if we wanted to. Likewise, living far afield incurs little impediment to connection. I currently live 3,390 miles from my entire family, but I communicate with them constantly. I send photos and gifts, listen to their worries, and celebrate their successes; I hear their voices and visit (or try to) once a year. But in the early modern period, were I to board a ship from home in Ipswich, UK, to come to Boston, my fortunes and future contact with my family would be far less predictable.

In many traditions, people tried desperately to hold on to the memory of someone through material objects. This is certainly true of the late 16th century memorial jewelry tradition in Europe that emerged from earlier “memento mori” customs. Since the Middle Ages, the rich tradition of “memento mori,” a Latin phrase meaning “remember to die,” permeated European culture, with its vivid iconography including the danse macabre, 15th-century cadaver tombs, chapels of bones, and public clocks with macabre inscriptions of “ultima forsan (perhaps the last [hour])” or “vulnerant omnes, ultima necat (they all wound, and the last kills).”1

The Dance of Death, from the Nuremberg Chronicle 1493. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Memento mori rings and jewelry were especially popular. While remembering to die may seem like a strange declaration to modern audiences, memento mori jewelry often served as moral imperatives to mind God and the fate of one’s eternal soul, always, when navigating life. Carrying images of death such as a skeleton upon your body in the form of jewelry would have been a familiar sight, which later transitioned into memorial jewelry, the tradition of carrying a specific person’s death with you. Rings of the memento mori tradition are incredibly common in museum collections, but far less common, at least in terms of survival, are memorial rings that focus on the remembrance of an individual.2 The memorial jewelry practice of the early modern period was certainly part of this larger memento mori tradition; but, by the end of the 16th century, memorial paraphernalia was starting to come into its own as a separate category. In October 2017, while foraging in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection of archived objects, known as “realia,” I ran across an incredible example of a memorial ring.3

The Skeletal Dance

The Folger’s “Posey/ Mourning Ring” (circa 1692) is an unusual find.4 The ring is inscribed with the phrase “The cruell seas, remember / Took him in November,” which comes to characterize the ring through an aquatic theme that dominates its design. But the inscription also gives us far more than a simple thematic guide: it tells us the fate of the deceased.

Described in the catalogue as having: “the following curious posey inside, ‘The cruell seas, remember / Took him in November’ [with], on the top under a pebble…a death’s head and a skeleton.” Image from Luna.

Beneath the ring, part of the inscription and the underside of the ring head with slats to let in light.

If the sea “took him,” we can learn two things: 1) the death was untimely or not from natural causes; and, 2) in all likelihood there were no physical remains for family members to inter. This detail brings up some legitimate questions, like what do you do with no body to bury? How do you mourn when someone is lost at sea? The memorial tradition in this period capitalized on the physical remnants of a person, and most often crafted rings, brooches, or bracelets with hair from the deceased. But what if no physical body remained?

This ring, then, is an exercise in representing the immaterial body through material means—a way of giving the mourner something to concentrate their remembrance upon and through which their grief becomes manifest. Looking at the memorial ring, it could seem surprising that it is not solely within the memento mori tradition due to its eye-catching spindly white skeletal figure painted on black lacquered enamel, with hollow eyes and mouth agape, calling voicelessly with arms outstretched to the viewer. But, while skeletons are prominent in the memento mori tradition, this little figure, surrounded by a circlet of gold filigree, is accompanied by the initials R. C. to either side. This indicates that the skeleton is not there to remind us simply of our own impending death; rather, it represents the skeletal remains of R. C. trapped within the sea of stone. The details of the image itself are startling—each rib is visible—but more startling still is the restless shifting and movement of the skeleton as it reaches forth. Gesturally, the skeleton calls to be looked at, to be seen, and remembered. If it feels like a trick of the eye, it is. The ring is designed to produce the illusion of a living, moving skeleton through the precise refraction of light that dances around the macabre figure, making it seem both a part of the eternal jig toward death, while simultaneously ensnared within the shimmering, wave-like ripples of light within the ring.

A direct view into the ring with a white skeletal figure and gold R. C. initials on a black background, surrounded by a gold-leaf circle. Note the interaction of light glancing off of the stone’s facets.

Eighteen slats cut into the underside of the ring head capitalize on the brilliance of the rose cut by dramatically increasing the amount of light entering the ring. These innocuous little slats let in light from every direction, emphasizing refraction, like water, to generate the rippling light effect that animates the skeleton as the ring moves through different patches of light. The cut of the crystal, known today as the ‘rose cut,’ is designed to illuminate, even in dim conditions, the gold inscribed initials, golden circle, and skeletal form. The rose cut, which originates in the 15th century, consists of a flat base with a domed, circular crown “with anywhere from 3 to 24 facets,” perfect for placing delicate engravings or items beneath for display.5 In the light this ring ripples, drawing the eye down to its depths and captivating it there.

Initially, the aim of the rose cut was to mimic the overlapping petals and the spiral of a rose, while maximizing brilliance and gesture toward romantic love. On this memorial ring, the facets are steeper along the edges and gentler overhead so that the image is vibrantly clear from above, while encouraging refraction and light around the enclosed image. The crystal cut also generates undulating refractions of light that mimic the movement of waves in the sea. This dazzling ripple effect seems purposefully incorporated as a vivid, yet subtle, visual reminder of the beautiful and deadly ocean that killed R. C.

Clearly someone wanted to remember, wanted others to remember, and wanted to demonstrate their deep care through a public and eye-catching statement—one that calls the outside viewer to remember death in the distinctive skeletal figure, but also to recognize the loss of a familiar person, R. C., and to draw close to the difficulty of loss and the desire for proximity that grief entails. Perhaps unlike the memento mori tradition, the connectivity evoked in this memorial ring, with its eternally moving spirit pined in the depths, in some ways makes death less threatening by drawing it into intimacy. At the very least, this ring provides rare insight into the materiality of death and how people in the late 16th and 17th centuries processed uncertainty, loss, and death without physical artifacts or a body. The ring demonstrates how intimacy with death could prove strangely and extraordinarily beautiful.

A Hairy Tradition

On the other hand, what if mourners did have a body? What if you had access to hair? It was, after all, common to have a scrap of hair from a deceased loved one, but hair took on a variety of forms and meanings in the renaissance. At the time, wearing someone’s hair in a piece of jewelry did not necessarily indicate the death of a loved one. The practice was, in fact, a meeting place for a variety of traditions, not least the memorial tradition and the love token tradition (more generally associated in the renaissance with posey rings). Many wore tokens of hair, not to mourn someone’s death, but to symbolize the cherished nature of friendships, or to preserve a lover’s lock, or as a token of thanks. Artists and poets alike depict hair tokens, including William Larkin’s 1614 portrait of Lady Diana Cecil (the hair bracelet is found on her left hand, attached to the ring she is wearing)—and the most exciting part was that you didn’t even have to be dead to warrant the creation of a hair token!

In the Folger’s collection are many examples of hair-based realia items from the 18th and 19th centuries that demonstrate the longevity of this tradition. The fashion of gifted hair, either loose or woven into a piece of jewelry became especially popular during this period. A prime example is George Washington: currently, over 100 institutions claim to have some of George Washington’s hair and more of his hair is still being found today (most recently at Union College in upstate New York). While Washington is an extreme example, having truly endorsed the spirit of hair clipping with vigor, the act of gifting hair to friends and family was widely practiced and became so popular you might call it the “selfie” of old. At the Folger are many wonderful examples worth exploring, but I’ll highlight just one: Charlotte Cushman’s and Rosalie Sully’s decorative hair on the back of a painted brooch from 1844.

The front side of the brooch depicts Charlotte Cushman. The backside of a painted brooch with tufts of two or more kinds of hair, bound together delicately with gold thread, to form the shape of a bouquet of flowers.

This example sees the two women’s hair deftly knitted together and manipulated into the shape of a bouquet of flowers bound by delicate gold thread and pearl ornaments. The gatherings of hair primarily make up the flower head and stem sections of the bouquet, while the looped stems are comprised of carefully laid gold thread on a pearl background. The Folger listing notes that this piece was created by Rosalie Sully for Charlotte Cushman, a gift to celebrate their friendship, intended to be worn as a brooch on a hat, coat, or scarf; close to the mind or heart. Since the photograph was still a scarce commodity in the mid 19th century, a painted image with a piece of hair could provide much-needed intimacy. As with the renaissance memorial ring, items made of hair in the 18th and 19th centuries engendered a sense of proximity and intimacy between those who longed for one another, who felt an emotional or familial connection, or who hoped to curry favor.

While it may feel like an unfamiliar gesture to keep the hair of a loved one to us today, it has a long tradition. John Donne recalls the practice in his poem The Relique (1633), in which he writes about deceased lovers wearing “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.”6 As the name of the poem suggests, hair and material objects that are created for remembrance or for memorial purposes become meaningful simply through their connection to the other person. The intimacy and sensory experience of touching an artifact from someone, especially one who you wish to remember, could be compared to the spiritual experience sought through physical contact with holy relics. Through the intimacy of touch, perhaps we hope to manifest a transcendental connection.

A similar drive to feel connected to someone far away or long lost must have spurred the genesis of the memorial ring above, which, even lacking the stable artefact of hair, seems to enliven the remembered party through carefully crafted, heavily metaphorical design. When looking at a nineteenth century brooch with tufts of hair inside, or a seventeenth century ring with a shifting skeleton dancing around, we might feel incredibly removed from the strange practices that brought such artefacts into being. Yet we are still so close.

Perhaps hair bracelets or brooches have fallen out of vogue (which, personally, I am thankful for), but these practices that connect us transcendentally to specific memories, moments, or people are still practiced today. Many parents still keep their children’s baby teeth under the guise of the tooth fairy to remember the growth and changes of their child. Some couples secret away a lock of hair tucked in a box or locket simply to know that they have something that is innately of their partner, regardless of photos and texts. Even without talismans from the body, like teeth or hair, we are surrounded by the physical and digital manifestations of a person’s existence that they leave behind—but sometimes we want something more. Like the early moderns, we struggle with these objects as we work with change, loss, and intimacy. Dead or alive, it seems that for centuries we have all sought greater proximity to those we love, and at the Folger, the strivings of some lucky few live on.

  1. If you are interested in the public clocks described above I would not recommend googling “death clocks” unless you want to find strange websites that, perhaps fascinatingly, claim to predict the exact date and time of your death. Instead, try these links for more on cadaver tombs, the Danse Macabre, bone chapels, and death clocks.
  2. For comparison, see some examples of memento mori rings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Memento Mori Gimmel Ring (accession number: L.2015.73.1), and the Memento Mori Locket Ring (accession number L.2015.72.33).
  3. Initially this exploration emanated from the Folger Institute’s Dissertation Seminar led by Ann Blair and Peter Stallybrass.
  4. According to the Folger’s catalogue, the inscription that is recorded as 1592 is likely referring to 1692 based on the wording and lettering style, placing the ring firmly in the popular era of memorial jewelry.
  5. “Antique Diamond Cuts” Brilliant Earth. [Accessed Oct 19th 2017].
  6. John Donne, Poems, By J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death (London: Printed by M. F. for John Marriot, 1633), p.289, line 6.


Fascinating post. I was half expecting to see a reference to the design for Sir Walter Aston’s memorial ring in L.a.253 as well:–Rich?sort=Call_Number%2CAuthor%2CCD_Title%2CImprint&qvq=q:Call_Number%3D%22L.a.253%22%2B;sort:Call_Number%2CAuthor%2CCD_Title%2CImprint;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6&mi=0&trs=2
It actually looks a bit ridiculous, because drawing was evidently not one of Richard Broughton’s strengths (which may be why he felt he had to add the note that it was supposed to represent a ‘death hed’), but you still get the general idea – and it’s interesting that he’s ‘advertising’ Richard Bagot of the _design_ of the ring, as opposed to just showing or sending him the finished product.

Elisabeth Chaghafi — July 11, 2018


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *