On the Remembrance of Death

Death is perhaps one of the most terrifying concepts a human being can grapple with. The majority of people tend to avoid the thinking about death, and what may come after death, yet throughout history and across different cultures a fascination regarding death persisted. Death has been a major concept within philosophy, religion and art with people of different times and places giving importance to the remembrance of death and its effects upon one’s life.

Memento Mori is the art and practice of reflection on mortality, which can be dated to thousands of years ago as a prominent feature within different religions and philosophies. Socrates is often quoted as saying that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In art, memento mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality, often times in the European Christian art context, regarded as “the expression developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife”.

The famous Socrates quote comes from Plato’s Phaedo, which continued with the Stoics of classical antiquity, were this discipline was particularly prominent among them. Epictetus, the famous Stoic, used to tell his students to “keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible — by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.”

In his very influential and much-cited work Meditations, Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” This essentially explains the philosophy behind the remembrance and contemplation of death. With mortality in mind, regardless of the belief of an afterlife, one would regulate his character, mentality and ambitions.

Another famous Stoic, with works filled with calls to remember death and contemplate it, brilliantly sums up the memento mori philosophy by saying, “We must make ready for death before we make ready for life. Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but upon our minds.”

In the religious context, the practice of remembering death stemmed from the belief of the emptiness and of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and accomplishments, and thus also as an invitation to focus on death and the prospect of the afterlife.

A Biblical injunction often associated with the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate’s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40, “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.”)

The remembrance of death has been a major topic of Islamic spirituality since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, in which it is abundantly found in the Quran, with reminders to pay heed to the fate of previous people. Some Sufis have been called the “people of the graves”, because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality.

Ibn al-Sammaak reports that, “While a fisherman was fishing, he threw his net in the sea, and it came back with a human skull. He looked at it and started crying and said, ‘If you were honorable; your honor did not delay your death! If you were wealthy; your wealth did not delay your death! If you were poor; your poverty did not delay your death! If you were generous; your generosity did not delay your death! If you were strong; your strength did not delay your death! If you were a scholar; your knowledge did not delay your death!’ He kept repeating these words and crying.”

And in the Hadith literature, Prophet Muhammad is recorded advising believers to “remember often death, the destroyer of pleasures.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, the mind training practice Lojong’s initial stages include the reminders to maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life, be aware that life ends and that death comes for everyone, recall that whatever one does, whether virtuous or not, has a result and that obsessing about getting what one wants and avoiding what one does not want does not result in happiness.

The second reminder includes in more detail contemplating that all compounded things are impermanent, the human body is a compounded thing, therefore death of the body is certain, and that the time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.

In Japan, the influence of Zen Buddhist contemplation of death can be gauged by the following quotation from Hagakure, the practical and spiritual guide for a warrior, drawn from a collection of commentaries by the clerk Yamamoto Tsunetomo, former retainer to Nabeshima Mitsushige, the third ruler of what is now Saga Prefecture in Japan, “The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.”

Most consider death a depressing and morbid event, and often tend to avoid thinking about it, even acting that this would will never come. But this completely ignores the matter, remembering death is not intended to live a black and nihilistic life, on the contrary, it it aims at creating priority and adding meaning. With death in sight, one would consider time and life as precious gifts that should be treated with great respect and attention.

In a lot of ways, this reminder can ignite a sense of purpose and ambition. Regardless of one’s life circumstances and status, regardless of fortune and its burden, one would look at life with a new perspective, seeking to make use of every moment in achieving success and what one truly longs for.

With this, Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant words come to mind, “Memento mori-remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die-what makes this any different from a half hour?”


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