As I started my day writing, I received a phone call letting me know that my grandmother had passed during the night. This led to a feverish spate of phone calls, adjusting schedules for the week, and informing other relatives.
This also led to some serious reflection. This grandmother, was the mother of the mother that died when I was six. She was the last remaining connection to my mother, and the family on that side.
Having your mother die at an early age does weird things to you. Death is an always present element in your thinking. You believe that at any point, things may go horribly wrong. I have to admit that I didn’t think that I’d live past 30, the age at which my mother died. I try to take every day as a blessing as I reflect. I’m also a bit invigorated to think about each day as a new opportunity to push even further in my life. As I read more into stoic philosophy, I’ve learned more about the roots of this thinking.
Memento mori is Latin for “Remember that you must die.” The phrase is believed to originate from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would be tasked with standing behind a victorious general as he paraded though town. As the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in the general’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” This loosely translates to “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”
This is a genre that draws upon the melancholic character of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Eat, drink, and be merry if you must, the objects suggest, because death is right around the corner. Memento mori paintings, drawings, and sculptures can range from blunt depictions of skulls, decaying food, and broken objects to subtler examples whose symbolism is easy to miss. A basic memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.
Helping balance the narrative
I believe that it is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives. It seems like a normal practice that may of us would rather ignore death, or do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. It may be the root of ego that causes us to run away from anything that reminds us of this reality. As a safety mechanism, we build this comfortable narrative that avoids this tough subject.
We also at times simply refuse to look at life as it is. We’re scared to meditate and reflect on the fact that we are all going to die. Just the fact that I wrote this post, and you’re reading it may strike you as a bit dark and macabre.
With all of our technological, surgical, and pharmaceutical inventions and devices, we expect, almost demand, to live a long life, live it in good health and look good doing it. We live in denial that we will die. But, previous civilizations were acutely aware of their own mortality. Memento mori was the philosophy of reflecting on your own death as a form of spiritual improvement, and rejecting earthly vanities.
These opportunities to remember and reflect on mortality goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” Early Buddhist texts identify the term maraṇasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’ Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality.
Remember that you will die
To most people, this remembrance seems like a horrible idea. Who really wants to think about death all of the time? Or, there is the belief that someone must be clinically depressed by thinking about death, and not focusing on the positive each day. But, what if reflecting and meditating on the finality of death is a key to living life to the fullest? As stated by Michel de Montaigne “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
Yes, there are times that I feel like I become a bit too focused on the remembrance of death. It may come when I hear a song that makes me think of my mother, or visit her gravesite to have a chat. But we must realize that these reminders may come in many forms. Some memento mori are there to humble you, whereas others are meant to have you cultivate zest for life. I believe there is a balance needed as you reflect and meditate. There is a need to remember the finality and loves lost. There is also a need to celebrate the day and those around you while you can.
You may be missing the point if you choose to only focus on the depressing elements as you meditating on your own mortality. This can in turn be an opportunity to find clarity in your priorities and meaning in life. It can allow you to cut through the clutter of your everyday interactions, and determine real perspective and an urgency in your interactions. Instead of viewing life as a series of days in which “it is what it is,” you can live life purposefully. The benefit of these memento mori is that you don’t have to die in order to live that lesson.
The important thing to understand is that death is coming. We don’t know when, we don’t know how. We have a belief that we’ll live an appropriately long life, and will die with no regrets. The truth is that we have no idea when or how this is coming. So, this raises the question, what would you do if you knew today, or two weeks from today, was your last day on earth?
How to remember
There are multiple ways to include this process of memento mori in your life. For some, it is as simple as including artwork and symbols in your home and daily interactions. These may be symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life. In my home we have skulls in various pieces of art and sculptures that help serve as a reminder.
I find that meditation also helps me as I reflect. No, I do not spend 20 minutes each morning focusing on how I’ll die. That’s creepy. My meditative practice focuses on cleaning out my head and starting each day anew. But, I have found some of the work of Tara Brach helpful in guided meditations. Specifically, part one and part two of the series about “awakening from the trance of fear”, and this talk about a grateful, giving, happy heart are an excellent focus.
A daily journaling practice, in conjunction with a daily morning read and a meditative practice is a good way to start the day. To get you started with your daily morning read, I’d suggest picking up one of these three texts and read a bit each morning. Each morning I meditate, read a short bit from one of these texts, and journal.
Living your life by focusing on the fact that you will die can at times seem a bit odd. As a young man, it was something I could not talk about. When others would find out that my mother died at an early age, I was confronted by the same attempts at solace and an indication that they were “sorry” this had happened. At no point could I share with them that I thought about these events often. I most certainly could not indicate that I believed that I too would “live fast and die young” as my mother apparently used as one of her mantras.
One of the things that I do believe, and most people do not understand, is that most of the wonderful things I have in my life are present because of my mother’s death. Most of my large family comes from my father remarrying. Events in my life have unfolded to put me in certain places in certain times. When I meditate and reflect on my current situation, there is nothing I would change. Yes, I wish my mother were here to meet my children. Yes, I have tons of aspirations and goals. Yes, I have a couple of things I wish I had done differently. But, on the whole, I’m thankful for my current situation. I’m also cognizant that it all could change in a moment.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” – Seneca
Memento mori is an opportunity, should you take it, to reflect on the invigorating and humbling aspects of life. By no means am I an expert on this. I still struggle daily with understanding my role and mission in life. In these struggles, I also need to remember that I may not wake up tomorrow. As stated by Epictetus, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” These opportunities to reflect and meditate provide an opportunity to create and enjoy the life you want.
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