One of the choice objects in last month’s Winter Show, New York’s lofty annual art and antiques fair, was an English “mourning ring with urn,” circa 1760–1780. It was a delicate thing, wrought from gold and silver, the urn enameled with white and trimmed with diamonds. The use of white enamel suggests that the person the ring is remembering was young. The ring expresses, the catalogue tells us, “the idea that love and friendship transcend death.”
But we do not escape it. Mourning jewelry is matter of fact about that. The term memento mori is Latin for “Remember you must die.” It refers to objects and symbols that remind us of death’s inevitability, such as a skull. Mourning pieces sometimes add the image of a crown over the skull, an emphasis that says, “Death is the master of all.” Before the discovery of antibiotics, people died at the drop of a hat and cultures were elaborate in their mourning—the Victorians in particular, not least because Queen Victoria so visibly and lengthily mourned the loss of her adored husband, Albert, wearing black for 40 years.