Death in the Cutlery Draw…
Browsing the Minster’s collection, you might notice several Early Modern spoons. These vary in type and style, from very plain “Puritan spoons” to ornate “Apostle spoons” that feature tiny figures of the apostles at the end of their stems.
One peculiar spoon, made by Thomas Mangy in 1669, takes on a very macabre tone. The end of the stem shows a picture of a skull, and on the front and back of the stem is inscribed: “LIVE TO DIE” and “DIE TO LIVE.”
This is called a memento mori. It is a reminder that we will all someday die. Memento mori were very popular throughout Early Modern Europe and can be seen referenced in art and writing. Such a motto was supposed to remind the reader that life is short, so they should live it well and morally. It could also be a celebration of death, as death was a necessary step to gain salvation.
This seemingly grisly utensil would have been given to a grieving family at a funeral, to represent the memory of the deceased. Spoons were common gifts for important life events and were often given at baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Very few memento mori spoons survive though, and they appear to have been popular for only a very short time. These spoons were not usually kept in the family for very long-- they were often recycled and melted into other silverware, which is why so few remain.
Funeral spoons might seem odd to us today, but we still mark a death and remember those we have lost in our own way. Stories of death, remembrance and legacy are explored in the exhibition Rites of Passage in York Minster’s Undercroft.
By Lindsay Kearney, Digital Content Volunteer