Memento Mori – A Reminder of Death
“Memento mori – remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die-what makes this any different from a half hour?”
Memento Mori is a concept I have read a lot about lately. It has its origins in Stoic philosophy and early Latin Christianity, but what is it? Memento Mori is a Latin term that translates to “remember death”. Not the most joyous message I agree, however, if you delve a little bit deeper into the thought process behind it, it can be a profoundly happy concept.
Memento Mori – A Brief History
This section will offer only a brief glimpse into the history of Memento Mori. More knowledgeable people than I have already covered this topic in detail. If you are interested in a more detailed analysis, check out The Daily Stoic, and Wikipedia.
The idea of Memento Mori can be found in various guises throughout history, apart from the aforementioned Stoicism and Christianity. Buddhist’s have a practice called Maranasati which is a meditation on death. In Islam, the “Tadhkirat al-Mawt” or remembrance of death has been present since the 7th Century AD. An important part of Memento Mori is the symbolism attached to it. The main symbol is the skull to represent death. This is often accompanied by hourglasses or clocks to represent the passing of time and fruit or flowers to represent life. Artists such as Albrecht Durer, Vincent van Gough, and Pablo Picasso to name but a few have immortalised the concept through their paintings.
A Life Less Threatened
Although the concept of Memento Mori has existed for thousands of years, I believe it is more important than ever. As we have evolved as a species, the threat of imminent death has diminished for most of us. Chances are if you are reading this post you aren’t living in a war-torn country where the threat of death is ever-present. With the advances in medicine, cleanliness, diet, and exercise our life expectancies have increased. While there can be no doubt that an increased life expectancy combined with a better quality of life is a good thing overall, it does present us with some challenges.
From the time of the Neanderthals to the Middle Ages and even later, death was a constant presence. Whether it was the threat of wild animals in Stone Age times or the plague in the 14th century. People were constantly reminded of their mortality. Today, people face death less often. Don’t get me wrong, this is without a doubt a good thing, but it does give us a false sense of security. People today expect to live to the age of 80 or more, and so, we think we have all the time in the world. The reality is quite different. In the words of the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius “You could leave life right now”.
This isn’t meant to depress you or make you feel like life is pointless. Yes, we will all die at some point, but until that point, the way we live our lives is in our own hands. You determine how happy you are, how successful you are, how liked you are. Memento Mori can be interpreted in two ways, you can adopt the “fuck it I’ll do what I want because I may die tomorrow” attitude, or you can adopt a more positive approach.
If you knew tomorrow would be your last day on Earth, imagine the joy you would take from every little experience. You would notice the light breeze as if you had never experienced it before. The rays of sunshine would feel warmer and more energising than they ever have. A rain shower would be full of beauty, the urge to run for cover would be gone. The time spent with your family would be the most precious thing you have ever experienced. Your appreciation of everything would increase. This is the mindset Memento Mori aims to induce. By having a reminder of death, you will be able to fully appreciate the life you are living.
Using Memento Mori
I’ll be the first to admit, it isn’t easy to implement this mindset. Particularly today when we have so many distractions, most people can’t find the time to sit down and contemplate death. Most of us will never take time out of our day for philosophical musings, however, this doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the concept of Memento Mori.
If you have time to think about death and its impact, do. The problems of today will seem small in comparison. If you don’t want to think actively about it here is what I suggest, based loosely on how I have implemented it into my life.
Read all you can about the concept (you are here already, good start) and become familiar with it. Have the idea in the back of your mind. I have found that this has made me more open to thinking about death without actually sitting down and contemplating it. For example, I came across this video a rapper made about an elderly man losing his wife. In years gone by I would have watched the video, felt sad for the man and moved on after a few minutes.
Now when I see the video, I think about the fact that I may well go through the same situation in my life. I think about some of the problems I’m having and compare them to a man who has lost his life partner. If I died tomorrow would I like my last day to be spent worrying about work, money etc? Of course not. I would want to spend it with family and friends. I’d make those difficult phone calls, I’d make peace with whatever situation I was in.
Death and Perspective
This is all hypothetical. With any luck, I won’t die tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do the things outlined above. The only thing standing in the way of that difficult conversation is me. I can ditch Facebook and spend 20 minutes with my family instead. On my deathbed I know I won’t look back and wish I spent more time on the internet.
Death has a way of putting things into perspective for us. It can make us see what we truly value. Implementing Memento Mori into your life can instil you with gratitude, a sense of purpose, and a fresh perspective on life.