Memento mori: Remembering death

Memento mori is a Latin word which means “remember that you will die”. In ancient Roman times when a general triumphed in war against enemy, a grand ceremony was held to publicly celebrate the success of the military commander who had led Roman forces to victory in the service of the state, and had successfully completed the foreign expedition. A servant would be tasked with standing behind this victorious general as he paraded through town. As the general rollicked and pampered in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in the general’s ear: Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!”(Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!)

This practice of remembering death and reflecting on human mortality dates back to ancient times.  Socrates said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In early Buddhist texts it is also prominent and termed as maraasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’ Some Sufis have been called ahl al-qubur, the “people of the graves,” because of their practice of frequently visiting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality. Imam Al-Ghazali wrote on this topic in his book Revival of the Religious Sciences.

In medieval Europe, the skeleton was commonly portrayed as a memento mori—a reminder of the inevitability of death, to help men remember death. Artists created paintings, sculptures, and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons, and other symbols of death. One such artistic genre was Dance Macabre depicting universality of death: no matter where one’s station in life is, the Dance Macabre unites all. It consists of paintings typically portraying a skeleton (signifying Death or the Grim Reaper) walking, dancing, or playing music. To convey the ubiquity of death, people from all walks of life — kings, popes, peasants and children — are invited by jolly skeletons to follow them in a dance to the grave, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain the glories of earthly life are.

Another genre referred to as Vanitas, is a form of 17th century artwork in Flanders and Netherlands featuring symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the essence and fleetingness of life. Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit (decay); bubbles (the brevity of life and suddenness of death); smoke, watches, and hourglasses (the infinitesimally of life); and musical instruments (infinitesimally and the transient nature of life).

Stoics of Greek and Roman epoch gave paramountcy to this concept of remembering death and meditated on it. Marcus Aurelius king of Roman Empire also called the philosopher king said: “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 sex and pregnancy and childbirth…This is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happens to us.”

The moral and ethical decadence of the twenty-first century is due to forgetting this practice. People don’t want to remember death because of fear or they think that it is an absurd idea and some have forgotten death like they have gained immortality. No one is able to utter the words to the corrupt and tyrant leaders like the servant whispering in ears of triumphed Roman general, that remember you will die, or to remind this to the fat cats, moneybags and capitalists merchant who hoard wealth by profiteering on blood, sweat and tears of masses, or the denizens who are delving in all types of moral, ethical and characteristics malice. Can corrupt politicians launder money from this world to afterlife, or denizens who are running after base desires will be able to take their material belongings with them to their graves? Can grubstakers and bankrollers backpack and tote their hoardings with them when they will be hammered by death? Is worshipping idols of fame, wealth, money, beauty and status and dedicating our lives to them worthy anything at all? These are the questions which we need to ask ourselves, our elite class and our masses. Remembering death will not depress us or make us abhor living, but it will certainly liberate us from slavery of earthly desires, shatter the shackles of spiritual ills and make us acknowledge that each second consumed and every moment frittered is precious and irreplaceable.

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time. – Seneca

If we could program ourselves to admire this philosophy of the ancient ones, we can achieve serenity in a world full of physical pleasures but devoid of spiritual satisfaction, inner peace and true sense of freedom. The Renaissance aristocrat and essayist Michel de Montaigne, elaborated it well:

“Let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it; let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant, let us invoke it in our imagination under all its aspects…To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

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