emember you will die. This is the literal translation of the latin term, memento mori. You may vaguely remember these words from your schoolyard days, but allow me to refresh your memory as the origin of this maxim is quite interesting.
The idea of memento mori began in Roman times. After a general won a war and returned to celebrate, he was accompanied by a servant who would discretely remain in the shadows. As the general was cheered and lauded for his accomplishments, the servant would whisper into the general’s ear ever so often these very words: memento mori, remember you will die.
It was a practice to keep the generals grounded and humble, to not allow their victory to go to their heads and remind them that there are bigger things at play. The idea of memento mori gained popularity from there, which is most apparent in several famous paintings done between the 13th and 17th centuries.In art, memento mori were used as symbolic reminders of mortality. You may recall seeing paintings that often had a prominent skull along with what seemed to be a bunch of random stuff. These were tributes to this idea. The skull itself signified certainty of death. Other symbols found in these paintings included:
- Hour glasses/watches to demonstrate fleeting time.
- Musical instruments/sheets of music to represent the ephemeral nature of life
- Rotting fruit or flowers to symbolize the decay of earthly things
- Dice or playing cards to represent the role of chance and luck in life
here was clearly value being found in this constant reminder of death. But in today’s world, we don’t like to talk about it. Actually, we pretty much ignore it. But maybe we need to change our thinking here. There may have been something to this idea of remembering death is lurking around the corner; there are no guarantees in life. The world is becoming an increasingly uncertain place. Natural disasters, civil unrest, disease and more, happen far too often and far too randomly. Not to sound grim, but you never know when you may be living your last day.
No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.Euripides
Of course, thinking about death is not fun by any means, but if you do, it can certainly put things into perspective. And I think this is the crux of memento mori itself: The reason artists and generals and leaders have always been aware of death, is because of what doing so gives you.
Live Life To The Fullest
If you’re aware that you could die, at any moment, would you change how you lived day to day? I’m betting yes. Spending an afternoon binge watching Netflix may not be how you’d choose to spend your time anymore.
This acceptance that life is short can completely change how you make decisions and live your life. It can motivate you, inspire you, and push you to fulfill your potential in what little time you have on this earth.
As was the case with the general, this reminder can also keep us humble. Knowing that our life could be gone tomorrow is the ultimate way to keep our ego in check. It’s not all about you and it never will be. Having humility and simply doing what you are capable is enough.
The world is full of wonder and mystery and we are just a small part of it. Keeping this in mind, will keep us grateful and appreciative of what we have and what we are able to accomplish.
We often think we’ll have time to make up for our faults later. We’ll start giving back to the community when we’re older. We have plenty of time for that part of our lives. Except that is no guarantee. Either we choose to be a good person or we don’t. Later may never come and you have to be prepared to deal with that if it doesn’t.
How do you want to be remembered? Success comes in many forms, but being a good person may be the most rewarding and meaningful.
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.Mark Twain
s morbid as it sounds, what if we kept death closer to our minds than we currently do. There’s certainly value in doing so, as uncomfortable as it may be, but being so honest with ourselves is important. So how do we accomplish this?
Create your own version of a memento mori. If we can find something that can give us this same reminder on the regular, it would go a long way in changing how we live our lives.
Your memento could be anything, and just needs to be your own personal symbol that you link to the idea of death. Perhaps it’s a quote you read every morning. Perhaps it’s a trinket that you keep on your key chain or in your room. Perhaps it’s a tattoo that you make part of yourself.
Hell, you could even get a skull if you wanted to take the authentic approach – I actually found this paper one that looks pretty cool.
The point is to remember that death is there. So live life to the fullest, be humble, and be virtuous, everyday, as it may be your last.