This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what Memento Mori is and how you can use it in your Stoic practice.
Definition Of Memento Mori
The phrase “memento mori” is Latin for “remember you must die.” It is a reflection on the impermanence of life and a constant reminder not to take your time on earth for granted and not to worry about things beyond your control.
History Of Memento Mori
Memento mori is thought to have its early roots in an ancient Roman tradition.
After a Roman military triumph, a companion or slave would follow behind the victorious general during his ceremonial procession. For the duration of the procession, the slave’s role was to periodically whisper to him, reminding him of his own mortality:
“Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!”
“Look behind. Remember you are mortal. Remember you must die!”
The general would be forced to remember that victory, like life, is fleeting, and not to take it for granted.
Memento mori, however, isn’t confined to ancient Rome and has been adopted in various guises in ancient Egypt, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and many other cultures and religions.
Through the ages, it has also been expressed in various art forms.
Here are some examples:
Cemeteries, tombs, and memorials are common places to find artistic reminders of death. The Capuchin crypt is one of the most compelling. It displays the skeletal remains of former friars with the message:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
The Early Music of Europe often adopted memento mori themes, particularly in medieval music like the virelai ad mortem festinamus of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat.
In Mexico, people throughout the country celebrate the Day of the Dead festival. Some regional variations also exist. In the Mexican state of Aguascalientes for example, the Festival de Calaveras has been running since 1994. This “Festival of Skulls” draws from the Day of the Dead traditions as well as paying homage to printmaker José Guadalupe Posada.
Memento mori as a literary theme goes back a long way. Writers like Michel de Montaigne, who wrote “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” in 1580, and many before and after him, grappled with the topic of death.
Paintings have long been a recognisable way of expressing the symbolism of memento mori. A well-known example is Philippe de Champaigne’s Still Life With a Skull Vanitas painting (c. 1671) which depicts a tulip, a skull and an hourglass to respectively represent life, death and time.
What The Stoics Said
The ancient Stoics were particularly prominent in their practice of memento mori and frequently meditated on the certainty of death. One of Seneca’s essays is even titled “On the Shortness of Life.”
In his Moral Letter 101, Seneca invokes the concept clearly and urges us to make the most of our time:
“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.”
Epictetus, meanwhile, taught his students to keep in mind the mortality of their loved ones and appreciate that every time they see them could be the last (Discourses 3.24):
“So too in life; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, never allow your fancy free rein, nor your exuberant spirits to go as far as they like, but hold them back, stop them, just like those who stand behind generals when they ride in triumph, and keep reminding them that they are mortal. In such fashion do you too remind yourself that the object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your own possessions; it has been given you for the present, not inseparably nor for ever, but like a fig, or a cluster of grapes, at a fixed season of the year.”
Marcus Aurelius gave us perhaps the most striking image from his Meditations (7.56):
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”
How Can I Use Memento Mori Right Now?
Talk of death may sound morbid, but remembering you’ll die is actually a thought that can be vital in remembering to live, remembering to make the most of your time, remembering to appreciate being here, right now.
Using memento mori in an actionable way is about practice. It is, by its nature, a reminder so we need to regularly revisit it to get the benefits.
In Bhutan, there is an old folk saying: “To be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.”
If five seems excessive, why not try once a day? Here are some ideas on how to do it:
- Set a daily phone reminder that simply says “Memento Mori.”
- Write “Memento Mori” on a post-it note and place it somewhere you’ll see it once a day.
- Every evening, go to bed saying this to yourself: “I have finished living; I have run the course that fortune set for me.” Ending the day with this thought allows you to rise with a bonus, receiving with joy one more day.
- Try this meditation from Anthony de Mello: “The way to really live is to die. The passport to living is to imagine yourself in your grave. Imagine that you’re lying flat in your coffin and you’re dead. See the body decomposing, then the bones, then it all turning to dust. Now look at your problems from that viewpoint. Changes everything, doesn’t it? Do this for a minute or so every day and you’ll come alive. It’s unbelievable how alive you’ll feel.”