Memento Mori: What Death Can Teach Us About Life

In mythology, death is always described in terms of transformation and renewal.

No matter how good and fulfilling a life we have, no matter how successful we are at filling our lives with wellbeing, wisdom, wonder, and giving, at some point our life is going to end. And no matter what we believe happens after we die, whether our souls live on, whether we go to heaven or hell, whether we’re reincarnated or folded back into the energy of the universe or simply cease to exist altogether, our physical existence and our lives as we know them will end. Whether death is final or simply a transition to something else, it’s definitely a stopping point. It might not be the end of the story, but it’s definitely the end of a chapter. And as The Onion headline summed it up: “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent.”

In today’s highly polarized times, in which so much media ink (or pixels) is spent highlighting how divided and disconnected we are, death is the one absolutely universal thing we all have in common. It’s the ultimate equalizer. And yet we talk so little about it. At a soulless airport waiting area, we can bond with someone we’ve never met before over the meager shared experience of a ten- minute flight delay, and we can develop an entire relationship based on our common devotion to Mad Men, yet it seldom occurs to us to bond over the massive dying elephant in the room: our shared mortality.

Certainly in the West, we mostly sweep it under the rug. And the closer death comes, the deeper we bury it, desperately putting machines and tubes and alarms and railings between us and the person stepping over to the other side of the mortality line. The medical machinery has the effect of making the person — the patient — seem less human, and therefore his or her fate less relevant to us, the lucky and alive. It allows us to not think about it, to put it off endlessly like something on our to- do lists we never quite get to, like changing our wireless calling plans or thinning out the contents of our closets. Rationally, we know we’ll get to it — or run smack into it — eventually. But we figure we don’t need to deal with it until we really have to. Thinking about death is like shopping for a new water heater before the current one breaks down. Why do it now? How would it change things? What good would it do us?

A lot, actually. In fact, there may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death. If we want to redefine what it means to live a successful life, we need to integrate into our daily lives the certainty of our death. Without “dead” there is no “alive.” Death is the sine qua non of life. As soon as we’re born, we’re also dying. The fact that our time is limited is what makes it so precious. We can spend our lives feverishly accumulating money and power as some sort of irrational, subconscious hedge against the inevitable. But that money and power will be no more permanent than we are. Yes, you can pass on an inheritance to your children, but you can also pass down the shared experience of a fully lived life, rich in wisdom and wonder. To truly redefine success we need to redefine our relationship with death.

I vividly recall all the preparations I went through during my pregnancies: the Lamaze classes, the breathing exercises, the endless reading on the subject. How strange, I thought to myself one day, to spend hour upon hour learning how to bring life into the world, but hardly a minute learning how to leave it. Where are our culture’s preparations for leaving life with gratitude and grace?

Indeed, we seem obsessed with using social media to memorialize our experiences as if photographing everything we do will make our lives less ephemeral. In fact, while the remnants of our virtual selves might linger on past our physical selves, they are just as fleeting.

There is a reason the subject of death has been central to every religion and philosophy throughout history. “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner,” Socrates says in Plato’s Phaedo, “is to practice for dying and death.” Since our body “fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense,” we can only achieve true wisdom when our soul is liberated from our bodies by death. And this is why philosophy, he says, is about “training for dying.”

From ancient Rome, we have been given the phrase “memento mori” — remember death, MM for short — carved on statues and trees. Tradition has it that the phrase goes back to an ancient Roman victory parade in which the triumphant commander had a slave cry out, “Remember that you are mortal.” Another Roman, Michelangelo, once said: “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.”

In Judaism, mourning is divided into four stages: three days of profound mourning; seven days of shiva, in which guests come to be with the mourner; thirty days of shloshim, in which the bereaved gradually reconnects with the community; and then a year of shneim asar chodesh, in which certain rituals continue as a remembrance. Christianity, of course, is based upon Jesus going through the most defining human rite of all — death — and overcoming it, through his resurrection.

In Buddhism, there is no separate self distinct from the rest of existence, so death is simply a rebirth to another manifestation of life and energy in the universe. In the West, by avoiding conversations about death and making it an almost taboo subject, we have separated ourselves from what death can teach us. As Dr. Ira Byock wrote in Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life, “Our society reserves its highest accolades for youth, vigor, and self- control and accords them dignity, while their absence is thought to be undignified. The physical signs of disease or advanced age are considered personally degrading, and the body’s deterioration, rather than being regarded as an unavoidable human process, becomes a source of embarrassment.”

We spend so much time searching for tips on how to extend our lives and eke out a little bit more time. But whether we believe there’s something after this life or not, death has much to teach us about redefining how we live this one earthly life, however long.

My mother died on August 24, 2000. The day of her passing was one of the most transcendent moments of my life.

That morning, she told my sister and me: “I want to go to the international food market in Santa Monica.” That was like Disneyland for her; she’d leave with baskets full of food, fruit, and goodies for everyone. So we took her there. My mother in her fragile little body, still filled with a zest for life, bought salamis and cheese, olives, halvah, Viennese and Greek chocolates, and nuts, and by the end, we had bags and bags of food to haul home. It was surreal, taking her out into the world after all the time she had spent in the hospital and then at home with congestive heart failure. We wanted to say to the checkout clerk: “You don’t seem to understand what is happening here. This is our mother! And she’s going! Can you please take care of her? Can you please take care of us?” But instead, we kept pretending that it was just like any other day. Deep down, we knew that we were shopping for the last supper, but we were not admitting it, even to ourselves.

Back at home, my mother spread out the most amazing lunch in the kitchen, inviting her daughters, her granddaughters, our housekeeper, Debora Perez, and everyone who worked in my home offi ce at the time: “Sit now and let us enjoy our food!” It was a feast. My sister looked at me with renewed hope: “Look at her appetite for food and love and sharing! This is not a woman who is going to die!”

Early that evening, she was sitting at a little table in her bedroom, shelling shrimp and eating them. “Sit and eat some shrimp!” she said. She had her hair in little pigtails and she was playing beautiful Greek music. She was like a happy child. It was as if her spirit was calling her back, and she was ready. There was no struggle. There was simply grace. Christina and Isabella — then eleven and nine — kept going in and out of the room on Razor scooters we had just gotten for them. My mother standing, looking at them, pouring all her love into them.

And then she fell.

I tried to help her get back in her bed, but she said no. This was a woman who, however weakened, still had the authority of the twenty- two- year- old who during the German occupation of Greece fled to the mountains as part of the Greek Red Cross, taking care of wounded soldiers and hiding Jewish girls. This was a woman who, when German soldiers arrived at their cabin and threatened to kill everyone if they didn’t surrender the Jews they were hiding, told them categorically to put down their guns, that there were no Jews in their midst. And they did.

So I obeyed. She asked me instead to bring her lavender oil to put on her feet. And then she looked me in the eye and in a strong, authoritative voice that I had not heard for months, she said, “Do not call the paramedics. I’m fi ne.” Agapi and I felt completely torn. So instead of calling an ambulance, we called the nurse who had taken care of my mother at home. And we all sat on the floor with her, her granddaughters still going in and out of her room on their scooters making happy noises, completely oblivious to what was happening, because that’s how my mother wanted it to be. The nurse kept taking her pulse, but her pulse was fi ne. My mother asked me to open a bottle of red wine and pour a glass for everyone.

So we all sat there having a picnic on the floor telling stories for an hour or more waiting for her to be ready to get up. There she was on the floor with a beautiful turquoise sarong wrapped around her, making sure we were all having a good time. It sounds surreal now, and it was surreal then. I had the sense that something larger was moving all of us, keeping us from taking any action, so that my mother would have the chance to pass the way she wanted to pass. Then suddenly her head fell forward and she was gone.

Later, I found out my mother had confided to Debora that she knew that her time had come. She asked her not to tell us, and Debora, who had known and loved my mother for thirteen years, understood why, and honored her wishes. My mother knew that we would insist on getting her to the hospital, and she didn’t want to die in the hospital. She wanted to be at home with her daughters and her precious granddaughters around her, in the warmth of those she loved and who loved her. She didn’t want to miss the moment.

We scattered my mother’s ashes in the sea with rose petals, as she had asked. And we gave her the most beautiful memorial, with music, friends, poetry, gardenias, and, of course, food, lots of food: a memorial that truly honored her life and her spirit. Everyone felt her presence there, hosting, presiding, shining her light on us. In our garden, we planted a lemon tree in her honor that has been producing juicy lemons ever since. And we installed a bench engraved with one of her favorite sayings that embodied the philosophy of her life: “Don’t Miss the Moment.”

I keep coming back to this lesson again and again. And however many times I backtrack, I return to the basics. I remember reading how Mikhail Baryshnikov, an absolute master at his art, was always at the barre with the rest of the corps, every morning, even on performance days and on days after a performance — doing the basics. There are three basics, three simple practices, that help me live more in the moment — the only place from which we can experience wonder: 1. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for ten seconds whenever you feel tense, rushed, or distracted. This allows you to become fully present in your life. 2. Pick an image that ignites the joy in you. It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting you love — something that inspires a sense of wonder. And any time you feel contracted, go to it to help you expand. 3. Forgive yourself for any judgments you are holding against yourself and then forgive your judgments of others. (If Nelson Mandela can do it, you can, too.) Then look at your life and the day ahead with newness and wonder.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 202–221


Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.