What is memento mori?
Memento mori is a popular ancient phrase used to remind us of our own mortality, literally meaning remember you must die.
Whether you like it or not and regardless of whether you choose to think about it or live in denial, dying is an inevitable part of life.
So how can we use our acceptance of this inevitability to our advantage to make the best out of the finite time we have?
When was the last time you contemplated your own death? Or the death of a loved one?
As we discussed in a previous blog post a stoic exercise called negative visualisation prompts us to essentially imagine the worst so that we can appreciate the things we have now. For me this often involves thinking very briefly about a loved one passing then shifting my train of thought to one of gratitude and appreciation for said person.
Epictetus advised his students that when they kiss their children goodnight, they should be reminded that their child could die tomorrow. While it is natural to recoil at this thought, it may also be a measure of your reluctance to accept the inevitability of death. This exercise is both uncomfortable and harmless and will bring a great sense of gratitude.
After all, how much more would you appreciate the loved ones in your life if you recognised each time you see them that this could be the last?
Remember, you are dying all the time and so is everyone you love. Every minute you live is a minute closer to death.
Naturally, most people actively avoid such thoughts. The main way you think about death is in the sense that you are proactively avoiding it.
In not actively thinking about death and accepting its part in life there is a chance you are robbing yourself of your ability to get the most out of the present day. If your mindset is that it may never happen to you or you will live eternally in the afterlife or it's so far away that you take today for granted as just another day, nothing special.
What if it really was your last day here and you knew it? I’m sure you would turn up very differently if you were connected to each day as finite as it could be.
What did the stoics think about death?
For the stoics this philosophical exercise was a regular part of daily life.
Unlike most modern societies now where death happens in private, tucked away in hospitals or quietly at home, in the past death would have been more front of mind where the old and fragile weren’t tucked away in sterile buildings but they were out and about until the end.
In ancient times it's highly likely that without this exercise, daily life would offer more reminders of the fragility of life. Health and safety didn’t exist.
For example, common remedies for epilepsy include eating pickled camel brain, smelling the afterbirth of a female donkey or drinking water from the skull of a dead man.
“Philosophy is a preparation for death” - Socrates
Memento mori has so many great benefits. By thinking about it regularly it allows us to accept it and removes some of the stigma and fear surrounding death. It allows us to be more comfortable so we can discuss death with our loved ones, bringing us closer to them.
Fundamentally, being connected to your own mortality means it is easier to feel a profound sense of gratitude for each day.
What does memento vivere mean?
Memento vivere means remember to live.
So, I would encourage you to keep two things in mind: memento mori and memento vivere.
Life truly is too short if you let it pass you by so make the most of it.
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” - Seneca
One powerful question to close, one that will prompt an awful lot of further introspection comes from the book One Last Talk: Why Your Truth Matters and How to Speak It by Phillip McKernan.
If you were about to leave this planet, what would you say, and who would you say it to?