What Is Memento Mori? Acknowledging Our Mortality
Memento Mori is an ancient nudge to cherish the fleeting moments of life.
Despite all its tribulations and struggles, life is beautiful, and this is a trope common across cultures. We’re often so busy enjoying the good things in life that we forget about the inevitable fact that death is as much a reality as life is, and your life, no matter how long you live, will come to an end.
This concept of death has been shrouded in mystery for ages and is considered a taboo across all human societies about which no one wants to talk. But often, acknowledging our mortality might be the only way to prepare us for death and lead to a happy and meaningful life.
This concept of reminding ourselves about death is not new, as it’s been practiced in different cultures since antiquity. Stoicism emphasizes remembering our mortality, and the Latin phrase “Memento Mori” is usually used to remind ourselves of our inevitable death at some point in the future
When translated to English, Memento Mori means “remember you must die.” Since antiquity, this concept of our mortality has been used and is often discussed in the writings of philosophers, thinkers, sages, and wise men of all ages.
In Phaedo, Socrates stated that philosophy’s sole purpose is to “practice for dying and death.” At first glance, this statement must seem like a morbid directive. Still, it’s far more profound as it asks us to acknowledge our body’s mortality and to nurture our immortal soul by pursuing knowledge.
In the modern age, Memento Mori has come to be associated with the Stoics as writings of stoics ranging from Seneca to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are replete of mentions of death and memento mori can be considered as the connecting link between different stoic writers who remind their readers of death repeatedly in their writings.
Epictetus wrote in Enchiridion, “If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed.” Seneca said, “Let us compose our thoughts as if we’ve reached the end. Let us postpone nothing. Let’s settle our accounts with life every day.”
Death is frequently remembered in Seneca’s writing as he urged us to tell ourselves, “You may not wake up tomorrow” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again” when waking up. Both these are quite powerful reminders of our mortality.
Epictetus also came up with another powerful reminder of mortality when he urged his students to “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.” By thinking and meditating about death and exile, one can be better prepared for all the difficulties that come our way in life.
Marcus Aurelius ponders over death several times in his magnum opus meditations. He wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
This theme of remembering our mortality is not limited to philosophers, stoics, or Western civilization. Many other ancient and modern cultures have similar tropes about remembering death.
Almost all significant religions worldwide have a belief system that asks us to ponder the transitory nature of life and be aware of death. This is a recurring theme across all Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and was also commonly found in the religions and belief systems of the ancient world, such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, and the Aztec Civilization. Let’s have a look at how different cultures reminded themselves of mortality.
Ancient Egypt is among the earliest human civilizations known for several architectural marvels, such as the Pyramids of Giza. Remembering death was a part of life for most ancient Egyptians no matter a peasant or king. People often forget that the Pyramid of Giza, like many other pyramids, is essentially a tomb or resting place for Pharaohs.
Death for ancient Egyptians was merely a passage to the afterlife, and their culture is replete with references to death. It’s said that a feast in ancient Egypt would include a skeleton or skull that would remind people to enjoy life now, as once they were dead, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the luxuries and pleasures of life.
Egyptian pharaohs of all dynasties that ruled ancient Egypt used to build tombs while they were alive, and these tombs, like the pyramids of Giza, often took decades to build. All the pyramids involved the hard work of thousands of laborers, engineers, architects, and planners. This shows the importance that Egyptian pharaohs placed on preparing for death and the afterlife.
Almost all major stoic philosophers were associated with either ancient Roman or Greek cultures, and stoicism flourished in both these civilizations. When returning from an extremely successful campaign, a Roman general would be honored to march in the city as part of a triumph that is analogous to a victory parade in modern times.
It’s said that a slave would often stand behind the triumphant general and would whisper in his ears that all this fame and glory is temporary and he should not forget his mortality. This was an excellent practice invented to keep the ego and ambitions of a triumphant general in check. It shows how Romans practiced memento mori by constantly reminding themselves of their mortality.
Buddhism has a meditative tradition known as maranasati that loosely translates as awareness or mindfulness of death. It forces the person to meditate to remind himself that death can strike at any time. Buddha said that to have even a single breath while not being diligent about mortality is negligent on the part of a human.
The Old Testament is full of passages that urge people to remember death, and some passages explicitly discuss the transitory nature of life. Like other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism places significant emphasis on death, the revival of the dead, and the afterlife. This means that death is often discussed among the believers as practicing Jews’ article of faith requires them to believe in the resurrection of the dead and the end of times.
Early Christianity developed in a milieu flush with stoic philosophers and ideas. Saint Paul was deeply influenced by stoicism, which is evident from his letters to Romans. Some historians have gone as far as to say that “St. Paul was a crypto stoic.” While this may be an exaggeration, there’s no doubt that the New Testament has some element that sounds quite close to stoicism.
Due to this early association of St. Paul and other apostles, stoicism came to be in close contact with Christianity. Over time, and especially during the Middle Ages, memento mori became an accepted concept in various Churches. The danse macabre or the dance of death, symbolized this close association between the stoic idea of memento mori and Christianity.
This association between Christianity and the stoic practice of memento mori became evident during the Middle Ages when danse macabre flourished as a cultural trope. Even today, one can find art, architecture, and paintings that were created during this era, and they beautifully depict the inevitability of death and force a viewer to ponder over his mortality and those of his loved ones.
Like many other Abrahamic faiths, Islamic theology revolves around judgment day and the afterlife, which are inevitably linked to death. Indeed, remembrance of death is an integral part of the Islamic creed, which early Islamic thinkers and Sufis practiced extensively.
Islam asks it followers to visit graveyards as it would remind them of death, and some Sufis have been known as “people of graves” or “ahl al-qubur” due to their habit of visiting graveyards frequently as it reminded them of their mortality and the transient nature of life and all its pleasures.
Various artistic motifs, symbols, and items have been used to remind people of their mortality. Indeed, memento mori gave rise to its own easily identifiable art form that has been in vogue for over a millennium. Memento mori art often includes skulls, skeletons, and hourglasses as these remind people of death and the fact that they have limited time to live their lives.
The above image is from the 19th century, known as the Sands of Time, and was taken by portrait photographer Thomas Richard Williams. This image is dated 1850-1852, and there’s not much information available about its author. The skull representing death and the hourglass representing time are visible in this portrait.
This image shows the outer panels of Braque Triptych that were painted around 1452 A.D. by early Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden, whose surviving works include religious triptychs, altarpieces, and portraits.
The above image is a vanitas painted by Philippe de Champaigne. In this image, a flower, skull, and hourglass are used to signify life, death, and time, respectively.
Dance Macabre gave birth to its own art form during the Middle Ages, and its examples can be found in chapels and churches across Europe. Here are some examples of this unique art form that’s done a great job of reinforcing the concept of memento mori.
Dance Macabre enjoyed a spectacular boom during the 15th century when Europe lost almost a third of its population due to the Black Death, and the continent was dealing with one crisis after another, such as recurring famines, Hundred Years War, and popular revolts.
These events ensured that death was seldom far away for most of the population, and mortality was on the minds of all people alive during these crises. This realization of their impending death sparked an interest in dance macabre and led to some spectacular frescos, paintings, and architecture that survive to this day.
It was also a common practice during the Middle Ages to keep a small item that could’ve been a coin, pendant, or clock with memento mori artwork such as a skull, hourglass, skeleton, or coffin as it’d serve as a powerful reminder of memento mori. This practice persisted until the 19th century, and one can still find several similar artifacts, as shown in the image below.
While most people know that memento mori is an excellent way to remind ourselves of our mortality, few realize that using it correctly can lead to a more meaningful, happy, and fulfilling life. Remembering death regularly will force you to change your perspective, and you’ll be able to prioritize essential tasks from mundane ones once you realize that the time you’ve got is not unlimited, as it’ll come to an end once you die.
Some of the leading leaders from all walks of life in our era practice memento mori in one form or another. Steve Jobs is known to look into the mirror each day and ask himself, “If today were the last day of your life, would you want to be doing what you’re doing?”. This daily reminder of mortality forced him to focus only on the most essential tasks. It ensured that he’d cement his place among the most profound business leaders of the 21st century.
Warren Buffet has advocated for his followers to envision their obituary and work backward from there. There’s also a quote attributed to him when he refused to participate in the RJR Nabisco takeover in the 1980s despite knowing that tobacco was a business with excellent returns. The reason he cited for his refusal was simple, “I wouldn’t want Tombstone to say that I invested and profited from such business.”
Amazon has become a monopoly in almost all the markets in which it operates, and much has been written about the role played by Jeff Bezos in the rise of Amazon. Jeff Bezos himself applied a methodology similar to memento mori when he decided to leave his cushy and well-paying job on Wall Street. Bezos explained his approach: “I projected myself forward to age 80 and reflected on my life. I aimed to minimize regrets. Trying this venture, participating in the internet revolution, was something I knew I wouldn’t regret. Failure wouldn’t be a source of remorse, but not attempting it might.”
This desire to minimize regrets would lead him to create the world’s largest e-commerce, retail, and cloud computing company in less than 3 decades. So, contrary to common perception, remembering our mortality can lead to remarkable changes in life and put us on a path to long-lasting success, as is evident from the examples of these 3 business leaders.