Memento Mori • (mə-men-tō-mȯr-ē) • noun
Definition: Remember death
I would not consider myself a morbid, morose, or macabre person, but I do think about death every day. It is neither something that is always on my mind nor a thought that inclines me to take on a sour disposition. Instead, it is a thought and an awareness that compels me to live my life and not succumb to illusions that I will live forever or always be youthful. Throughout human history, remembering death has always been a great source of wisdom and philosophy because it counters the ignorance and naiveté of wishing for things to be eternal.
Death and The Good Place
Memento Mori is an essential philosophy for living a fulfilling life, and in recent years, the sitcom The Good Place has provided a great explanation for the necessity of remembering death.
In Season 4, the main characters finally reach “the good place” and can have an afterlife of unlimited happiness, yet it quickly becomes apparent that an eternity of unlimited possibilities will become a boring meaningless existence. If you can always do whatever you want and you have an unlimited amount of todays and tomorrows, then each day now becomes meaningless. Everything that you can do today, you can also do tomorrow, and you have an infinite amount of time for both; so why do anything today that you could do a thousand years in the future? At a certain point, you will literally accomplish everything you could imagine, and now you are still left with an eternity of tomorrows. Everything slowly loses meaning when eternity is your new reality.
To make the afterlife meaningful, the characters on The Good Place gave people the opportunity to end their time there by walking through a door and experiencing an entirely unknown existence. The possibility of an escape from eternity created an urgency and purpose for everyone in the afterlife. The dead soon created goals and decided things they wanted to accomplish before they voluntarily ventured into the unknown. To find meaning in the afterlife, they needed to make existence finite. To have a meaningful existence, one needs memento mori.
In the real world, we rarely get to choose when we get to walk through that door, which means that wisdom and memento mori are crucial for us right now. There is a sense of urgency to lead meaningful lives, yet so much of our existence is consumed by what’s happening in the present moment and so much of our self-worth is fickle to other people’s opinions. This creates a life full of anxiety over things and decisions that don’t ultimately matter. "Remembering death” can bring us back to what is truly important to us and the world beyond just us.
We have already seen what the actions and consequences of not remembering death looks like, and how those who are obsessed with self-preservation actually cause more harm. Countless colonizers, whose names are still memorialized for the atrocities they committed, left trails of death as they searched for the fountain of youth; and many authoritarian regimes are similarly emboldened by fanatical ideas of being eternally powerful. When we do not remember death, far too often we prematurely bring death upon others and ourselves.
A couple of years ago, I was walking across the street when a car suddenly runs the red light. As it was coming towards me, it collided with another car at the intersection but the force of the impact was strong enough to send both cars my way. By then I've learned the importance of practicing “nerve strength,” so as the cars were moving towards me, I was able to have the concentration to jump out of the way. One of the cars missed me by a foot or so, and I basically got up and continued on my walk. Later in the day when I recounted this story to a friend, their response was “You have no fear of death.” This isn't an entirely accurate depiction because it's not like I live a life devoid of fear, but I practice remembering death in a way that causes me to focus more on delaying its premature arrival than fearing its existence. Memento mori helped me stay calm and jump out of the way instead of panicking in a life or death situation.
Art, Altars, and Memento Mori
A key aspect of memento mori is that remembering death can take on different forms. Many spiritual practices around the world have various meditations on death, such as the Buddhist maraṇasati; and 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. However, benefiting from memento mori does not have to require extensive meditation practices.
Some societies use subtle reminders of mortality in everyday aspects of life. Portraiture paintings throughout Europe would feature a skull or an hour-glass in the background adjacent to the subject. These items would remind onlookers that despite the fact that the individual was artistically captured in this fixed moment in time, the grains of time are still running and eventually everyone will be reduced to bones and ash. This subtle detail is a reminder to people to not waste their life aspiring to ignore or escape death but to instead be conscious of their finiteness and live deliberately.
Memento mori can be bigger than everyday reminders too. Large ancestor remembrance traditions have always been a primary vehicle for preserving a culture’s wisdom. By remembering the dead, you remember their life and the lessons they have taught you which get reinforced as you keep their memory alive. When we ensure that a piece of their spirit or geist lives with us, we are able to continue their legacy and strengthen ourselves.
This year, SCL’s The Altars Festival cultivates and elevates the importance of ancestor remembrance traditions in the United States because the practice of memento mori is especially great this year. Nearly 200,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19, and far too many cultural icons have passed. On Friday, September 18th, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and now she will be commemorated on many people's altars this year.
By remembering death, we can celebrate life. Memento mori helps us live life with a little more focus, calm, and wisdom as we cherish each and every moment that we have.