There is nothing more certain in life than the certainty of death. It’s the great equalizer of the world, and it is blind–no matter if a person is rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, wise or ignorant, any sentient being that experiences life must also experience death. It behooves anyone who wishes to improve themself to be mindful of death and one’s mortality.
Does That Seem Somber?
It doesn’t have to be if you have the right mindset. You can choose to live in relative comfort, avoid most risks of harm, assume the story is unheroically about you, and arrive on death’s shore relatively safe and intact, unmarred by the labor of great pursuits in service to a cause greater than your existence. At the same time, you are experiencing the burden of regret for never knowing the true extent of your capabilities.
On the other hand, you can choose to leave behind a legacy defined by a life lived with deep purpose, meaning, moral character, convictions, compassion, and courage, strong enough to inspire people long after your flesh and bones return to dust and particulate silence.
Innumerable people throughout human history have reflected on death as a way to experience life and live it to their fullest potential. The practice has had many names in many languages over the millennia, but these days it’s most often referred to as Memento Mori.
A Brief History of Memento Mori
Memento Mori translates to, “Remember, you must die.” The practice has a very long history that crosses cultures, continents, religions, and philosophies: from the ancient philosophers of Greece to Roman generals, Buddhist monks to Islamic Sufis–meditation on death allowed them all to pursue life.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the great philosopher Socrates states before he is about to die: “…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…”
The example that Socrates set during his life and before his execution would leave a lasting legacy on the entirety of Western civilization and lead to the birth of many different schools of philosophy. One school in particular–Stoicism–becoming well-known as a practical school of philosophy that stressed the importance of contemplating death. The surviving writings of the ancient Stoics are filled with admonitions to remember death and the three most well-known Stoics:
All have something to say about death.
“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
The ancient Romans also practiced the contemplation of death, Memento Mori being a Latin phrase.
Memento Mori comes from a Roman tradition in which a general would take part in a triumphal procession through the city, upon returning to Rome after a significant victory. To be the subject of such a march was a great honor and the desire of many ambitious soldiers.
As the triumphant general was carried through the city in his horse-drawn chariot to the great applause and praise of the people of Rome, a slave would stand behind him, holding a crown over his head and whispering, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento. Memento mori!”
“Look behind you. Remember you are mortal. Remember you must die!”
This tradition was an opportunity for the general to throw a grand celebration, and it allowed him some self-promotion, which could come in handy should he decide to run for political office someday. It’s a bit tough running for office when nobody’s heard of you, after all.
The purpose of the slave whispering in his ear was to keep the general’s ego and perspective in check throughout the entire celebration, lest he forgets himself and does something disgraceful and offensive to the gods.
A few hundred years later, during the late Middle Ages, Memento Mori had developed into an art style known as Danse Macabre or the Dance of Death. At this point in history, Europe had just been devastated by the Black Death pandemic, with the most fatalities ever recorded in human history; death was on everyone’s mind.
The Danse Macabre was a meditation on the universality of death: no matter how rich or how poor one is, death comes for us all. The art would usually feature a personification of death (a skeleton or corpse) leading people from different stations in life–typically a pope, king, emperor, laborer, and child–in a dance to their graves.
In the 17th century, Dutch artists used a style of still life painting known as vanitas art (from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity.”) as a Memento Mori. The artwork would feature skulls, rotting fruit, candles, hourglasses, dead and wilted flowers, and more atop tables as powerful imagery to remind the viewer of death.
By the 19th century, Memento Mori had moved from paintings to jewelry, with people from all walks of life wearing rings featuring skulls, coffins, the phrase “Memento Mori,” or a combination of the three as a constant reminder of the wearer’s mortality.
Though not nearly as prevalent in the minds of the general populace as it once was, Memento Mori is having a modern resurgence. People are buying Memento Mori medallions to carry with them in their pockets as a constant reminder that they will one day die. Such well-known figures as Tim Ferriss, Casey Neistat, and more carry a Memento Mori medallion with them, and even Memento Mori rings are making a comeback.
I’m a part of this modern resurgence.
Memento Mori and The Twelve Labors Project
Memento Mori is the tool that I use to overcome the challenges in my life and find the inspiration to push through any obstacle that I see before me. When I take on physical challenges as part of my Twelve Labors Project, Memento Mori is what keeps me grounded, focused on the present, and mindful of what truly matters in a universe that seems to be unraveling.
In 2016, for my 5th labor, I set out alone in the barren wilderness of the northern Mojave Desert to raise awareness of veteran suicide by pulling a 2.5-ton pickup truck across Death Valley. With a landscape as beautiful as it is bleak, my only companions throughout the 22-mile challenge were stones sculpted over the millennia by the desert wind and rain, dunes that reflected the sun’s blinding light, the searing heat that burns anything that enters the Valley, and my thoughts.
Each mile that I pulled the truck through the desert represented one of the 22 lives that are lost each day to veteran suicide. With every step I took and every inch of ground that I gained, Death Valley would try a little harder to convince me to take off the chest harness and quit the challenge; it only ever got hotter and drier as the journey progressed. Naturally, the solitude that I experienced during the challenge forced me to confront the worst of myself–my doubts, my fears, my insecurities, and everything I had ever come to regret in my life.
I would take a step and hear a voice, “Give up! There is no shame in quitting.”
I would take another step and tell myself, “Memento Mori! Remember, you must die! Remember why you are here!”
Reflecting on my mortality and the memory of those who we’ve lost to suicide fortified my steps and made the seemingly impossible, possible. The dichotomy between death and the present moment became more apparent than ever, opening my view to perspectives and insights that never before occurred to me. It was the catalyst I needed to regain my momentum and embrace my fate moment by moment with a full heart and unyielding resolve.
Being alone in Death Valley with a 2.5-ton pickup truck strapped to your back is a surefire way to come face to face with your mortality, and the practice of Memento Mori is what allowed me to stay focused on a goal that was bigger than myself. I wasn’t striving for recognition when I hauled a truck across the desert.
I wanted to raise the awareness of an alarming problem that’s plaguing veterans. Whether or not I completed the labor or someone else did was irrelevant, so long as people were made aware of the cause that spurred the challenge. I could have died at any point during my trek through the desert–I could die at any moment, really–the recognition, the accolades, it would all be meaningless to me after that.
The cause, however, would live-on.
“On fame. Look at their minds, the nature of their thought and what they seek or avoid. And see how, just as drifting sands constantly overlay the previous sand, so in our lives what we once did is very quickly covered over by subsequent layers.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.34
How Memento Mori can Spur action
Memento Mori isn’t just a tool to motivate yourself to drag a truck through a hellish landscape–it can also act as a catalyst for motivation and productivity every day.
Procrastination is a challenge that most people face daily, and I’m no exception. Why bother getting out of bed every morning to face an uncomfortable world when comfort can be found already under the blankets? Why bother doing anything at all?
What kind of life would that be?
“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.” —Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Seneca knew that we so often waste life clinging to idleness and comforts that only serve to distract us from fulfilling our highest potential. A life lived in pursuit of comfort while putting off our duty is a life spent wasting the finite amount of time we have. Find comfort in the uncomfortable, and remember you must die: why waste your time on trivialities when your time is short?
If you want to meet specific fitness goals, Memento Mori is the motivator you need to get to the gym (or perhaps your home gym for now) and accomplish those goals. When you wake up in the morning, set an affirmation for yourself that you will do what you need to do to meet your goals, regardless of the obstacles you may face. Remind yourself of your mortality and that you would rather not spend the precious time you have left watching television or sleeping.
That’s what I tell myself each day before I train, and it’s what you can say to yourself, too.
Sure, we are all fated to die one day, but that doesn’t mean that we should use every moment we have in hedonistic pursuits. The cake is good, but should we eat it for every meal? Of course not. Overindulgence in unhealthy eating and drinking will only bring death faster, while healthy habits will serve to keep life long and help you reach your fullest potential.
A healthy body makes for a healthy mind, after all.
Memento Mori and World Events
The world is currently experiencing turbulence that hasn’t been felt in a long time. Climate change is causing extremes in weather conditions that have led to intense droughts, massive forest and bush fires, and hurricanes, the like of which humanity has not seen since biblical times.
We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, with COVID-19 spreading through cities reminiscent of the Black Plague of the medieval period. Governments are using the fear and distraction caused by the pandemic to push agendas on both ends of the political spectrum.
American law enforcement is under magnified scrutiny due to cases where excessive uses of force and lack of human decency resulted in undue death. These things are occurring within an atmosphere of violent riots and peaceful protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Some social issues are being conflated with broader ones to embolden movements and attacks against certain groups. In contrast, other important issues are being drowned out by a deafening silence solely for their lack of utility or mere convenience within the popular narrative.
As an American with deep love and hope for this country, who also happens to be a person of color, let us tread through these troubled waters together. I believe that the greatest adversary to justice and inequality for all people are the unacknowledged unions between indifference and leadership, ignorance and power, and apathy and fear.
In the words of the American novelist and activist, James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We must have the courage to fight and disintegrate these shadow alliances today and hereafter, long after the media moves on from it, and it is no longer trending.
As Og Mandino once wrote, “tomorrow is only found in the calendar of fools.”
Memento Mori, as a practice during this complicated time in history, allows us to face our fears, flaws, and failures individually and as a country. These events compel purposeful action with a sense of urgency, not from a place of hate or vengeance, but from a place of empathy and compassion under the premise that this day, this hour, this moment is all we have.
Tomorrow is not a promise but a mere thought—an assumption of an uncertain future time and place arising in the present.
These actions include defending people’s right to criticize our country’s shortcomings and peacefully protest them while supporting the constitutional principles upon which America stands—all within the same breath of passion and wholehearted conviction.
We are all dying from a chronic condition called life. In truth, every second, we lose to laziness, procrastination, or indifference forever belongs to death. Every opportunity to do good in the world, regardless of a person’s race, politics, religion, or social class, becomes a gift when we embrace the fact that every human on earth will one day experience the same loss of loved ones and suffering like you. It makes sense to be kind to every person we encounter during these complex times when we remind ourselves that death is the final arbiter.
Out of the four Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice, Marcus Aurelius felt that justice was the most important of them all.
“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.31
When faced with a kind of turmoil that we haven’t seen for generations, Memento Mori can be the guide that helps us navigate through the present climate. Every time you watch current events on the news or witness injustice happening in front of you, you have a choice between action or inaction. Reflection on our mortality can allow us to see the bigger picture, face injustice like a true Stoic, and present solutions based on reason and sound judgment.
We must die, it’s true, but must we die having done nothing for the benefit of the greater good? No. Our lives have meaning when we live according to our principles and stand up for what is right and good in the world. Death comes to everyone, that’s for sure–there’s no point in worrying about when or how it will come when the most uncertain part of life is how we choose to live it.
After all, death is only the end under the presumption that the story is solely about you. Our good deeds and strength of character are immortal, standing as living monuments in those we inspire—more powerful than mere words on a tombstone can ever be.
There’s a Greek proverb that I feel beautifully exemplifies the point I am trying to make:
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Maybe we’re not all old yet, but if we want our society to grow, then we must plant the seeds of justice and love so that future generations can enjoy the shade of these trees. Doing so is a choice that we must make, fully mindful of the fact that death comes to us all eventually, but the consequences of our choices live on in the world and affect the generations that follow.
“You may leave this life at any moment; have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.11
Taking the advice of Marcus Aurelius, we can let the inevitability of our demise inform our way of life. With every single choice we make and every single action we take, we can view it in light of our death before we make that choice or take that action. Ask yourself these questions:
“Do I want to be remembered as the person who turned away from injustice?” “Am I okay with being the cause of inequality and suffering?” “Do I truly feel indifferent to the plight of the oppressed?”
When society lacks proper leadership, you must learn to look to your principles to lead yourself. Living according to your principles may cause you to stand alone against a crowd; it can lead to fear and doubt, and will almost certainly bring the pressure down on you from individual members of society–but you must stand resolute.
If you can’t stand firm in your convictions while trying to improve society and crumple at the first sign of pushback or join the crowd when it acts against your principles, then you haven’t stood for anything at all. In chapter 24 of the Enchiridion, Epictetus has the following to say about benefitting communities:
“Well, what will my profession in the community be?’ Whatever position you are equipped to fill, so long as you preserve the man of trust and integrity. If you lose that in your zeal to be a public benefactor, what use in the end will you be to the community once you have been rendered shameless and corrupt?”
To that end, we must stand up to human indecency in the form of violence and rioting. What would you hear if you went around your community and told people that you robbed their businesses for their benefit and destroyed their properties to protect their rights? It’s unlikely that you would face gratitude from victims of violence and theft, don’t you think?
Memento Mori can be the catalyst for action, but it can also be the catalyst for restraint. Use it to remind yourself of what type of behavior you want people to remember. Just as you can ask yourself questions to help you take action, you can also ask questions that promote restraint:
“Do I want to be remembered as the person who destroyed someone’s livelihood?” “Am I willing to sacrifice my convictions just to satisfy the mob’s lust for violence?” “Will this help my case or hurt it?”
Memento Mori will be the guide that reminds you that there is always a bigger picture and that it is not always wise to act, just as it is not always wise to remain inactive. Epictetus in chapter 33 of the Enchiridion once again admonishes us to be firm in our convictions:
“Settle on the type of person you want to be and stick to it, whether alone or in company.”
When you have decided who you want to be, Memento Mori will help you to stick to it, reminding you when to act and when not to. It takes courage and sacrifice to do something for a cause greater than yourself, but you won’t lose yourself to the baser instincts of the ego so long as you remember this:
“Look behind you. Remember you are mortal. Remember you must die!”