Memento Mori

Postpone nothing as you could leave life right now

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Death is the one truth and as such an inextricable part of life. No matter what your beliefs are; you will die.

Is Memento Mori a reminder that you must die, or that you must live…

This famous painting by Philippe de Champaigne dates back to 1671 and illustrates the concept of Memento Mori admirably.

Philippe de Champaigne (1671)

There are three main elements represented in the painting. Number 1 is the hourglass; time passes inexorably and without fail, then we have the rose which symbolizes the truth about life which is the fatality of death, and the skull is a representation of death; we are all going to die.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, Book 2:

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Maybe this realization would trigger you to go on a hedonistic binge, but is this the wisest thing you could do?

Maybe you could narrow your life down to the essentials that are actually defining you as a person. Memento Mori is the perfect antidote to procrastination. If you stop believing you have an abundance of time, you will start doing the things you should now, because tomorrow you may be dead.

Basically you will be motivated to take care of business. Don’t squander your time doing petty things.

Memento Mori prepares you to the loss of people you love; the world is full of death after all…

Although it is obviously not easy not to be affected by loss; most of us are still human after all; it will be less of a shock and may help the grieving process.

Marcus Aurelius:

Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IX.

Since the dawn of time, humans have been fascinated by this subject and entire religions are based on it.

In ancient Egypt, excavated mummies, tombs, and pyramids reveal that remembering death was entrenched in ancient Egyptian culture. Egyptologists are certain the preservation of dead bodies and the building of elaborate death chambers were an act of celebrating life, and a reverence for its, in their eyes, transitory nature.

Egyptian death chamber

Before his execution the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates famously said:

“…he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world…For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying…”

Stoic philosophy focuses on priorities and purpose. Memento Mori was used to remind oneself not to waste ones life on the trivial and the vain.

Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus were the main stoic philosophers and each wrote on the subject.

From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there is saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’?” -Epictetus, Discourses, 3

All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time–it will all be the same.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.33

Keep the prospect of death, exile and all such apparent tragedies before you every day–especially death–and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess.” –Epictetus, Enchiridion, 21

I am endeavoring to live every day as if it were a complete life. I do not indeed snatch it up as if it were my last; I do regard it, however, as if it might even be my last. The present letter is written to you with this in mind as if death were about to call me away in the very act of writing. I am ready to depart, and I shall enjoy life just because I am not over-anxious as to the future date of my departure.” -Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter 61

In early Christianity (2nd century AD.), Tertullian, a christian writer, claimed that during a triumphal procession a victorious general would have someone whispering to him:

Look to the time after your death and remember you are only a man.

Christianity’s strong emphasis on divine judgment, heaven, hell and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness.

Many memento mori works are products of Christian art and are set in a moralizing context.

Remembering the inevitability of death is a core Biblical theme. It remains prevalent today.

the dance of death

13th century Icelandic poems attributed to Odin include many references to the Memento Mori philosophy. For example:

The Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”)

Deyr fé, deyja frændur, deyr sjálfur ið sama; ek veit einn at aldri deyr, dómr um dauðan hvern.

Animals die, friends die, and thyself, too, shall die; but one thing I know that never dies the tales of the one who died.

wood carving “the Havamal”

The early puritan settlers were particularly wary of death. They would often put a Memento Mori on their graves as a warning intended for the living. These were usually death heads or skulls.

Fear of eternal punishment kept people in line.

Puritan tombstone

Post mortem photography was a relatively popular practice at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As a photography enthusiast the practice of photographing the dead is rather intriguing and for modern sensibilities rather unsettling.

On some of those pictures one cannot tell who is alive and who is dead. The bodies were made to look as “alive” as they could considering their limited means.

They were using sticks to keep the bodies upright as well as copious amounts of make up for example.

The cameras used in those days were much different from our digital tech wonders and had some limitations. The shutter speed was usually quite long for example. Living people tended to look slightly blurred because they may move …dead people don’t anymore obviously, and are much sharper in the picture since they are perfectly still.

Photography was a luxury in those days and post mortem photographs were often the only pictures people had left of their loved ones.

In Buddhism mindfulness of death is a central teaching. Maranasati means death awareness and is a meditation on the validity of how you use your precious life.

The following quote is attributed to the Bouddha:

Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

In ancient Japan, the samurai culture was greatly influenced by the practice of Zen Buddhism. It is part of this tradition to contemplate death. The following excerpt is from the Hagakure, a treatise on the samurai way of life:

The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.”

The seven virtues of Bushido is the code by which the samurai lived:

The samurai believed things were most splendid at the moment before their fall, and aim to live and die in a similar way, inspired by the beauty of cherry blossoms and the fiery colors of autumn.

Death has inspired artists throughout the centuries.

In modern culture although it is a taboo subject, discussed only when necessary, and even then usually only in hushed whispers, it is very much part of cinema, fashion, music and philosophy. Examples abound in our daily life.

day of the dead (Mexico)

To conclude, remember Steve Jobs famously said:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”

If you wish to support me please check out “Memento Mori” inspired merchandise right here:

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