“Memento Mori” Meaning: What Does It Mean?
There’s a lot of talk these days about the unreliability of statistics, but here’s one stat that no one can argue with:
100% of all people that are born will die.
The inescapable reality of death is a frequent motif in cultures, religions, and philosophies from around the world. This brings us to the Latin phrase memento mori, meaning “remember that you must die.”
Does this sound morbid to you? Are you ready to bounce off this article and head for cheerier content?
Before you do, hear this: practicing memento mori could radically change your life. Avoiding the fact that you will die won’t change the fact that you very much will, and there are some pretty impressive benefits to taking time to meditate on death.
So, if you’re still with us, let’s look at what memento mori means, its history, and how it can change your life.
“Memento Mori” Meaning: What Does It Mean?
The Latin term memento mori means “remember that you must die.”
According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, it’s a noun that describes “an object serving as a warning or reminder of death, such as a skull.” Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a reminder of mortality.”
Artists and thinkers across cultures and religions have incorporated this artistic or symbolic motif in a way that intends to remind us all about the inevitability of death.
If you’ve been bopping around the growing online community surrounding the philosophy of Stoicism, you’ve probably bumped into this term. The Stoic philosophers were particularly prominent in the practice of meditating on death.
How to Pronounce “Memento Mori”
The English pronunciation of memento mori is:
The History of “Memento Mori”
Once you’re aware of the concept of memento mori, you start to see it everywhere you look when you’re waltzing through the tales of history. We may feel like we don’t have much in common with people from ancient times, but the reality is that we will all meet the exact same fate that they do.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, the Stoics used the practice of meditating on death to help invigorate their lives. In modern times, we tend to see discussion of death in any capacity as morbid and depressing. However, when you’re able to grasp that you will one day die and there is no escaping this, it can also help you work to create meaning in your life and prioritize the things that matter most to you.
When you understand that you’re going to die and remember this fact, you can look at each day as a gift. The Stoics knew that wasting time was wasting the precious gift of life, and they emphasized using one’s time wisely.
Epictetus told his students that “the supreme of human evils, the surest mark of the base and cowardly, is not death, but the fear of death.” He instructed them to build self-discipline against the fear of death and incorporate the knowledge of it into their lives.
According to a quote from Epictetus, this is the “only path to human freedom.”
Marcus Aurelius made many notes about the inevitability of death that ended up being published in his Meditations. He believed it was essential to always remember one’s death in order to guide one’s actions in the present. If you’re interested in incorporating the knowledge of death into your daily life, Marcus Aurelius has many great quotes to inspire this meditation:
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
Seneca the Younger also urged others to remember death. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, he said:
“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.”
Other Instances in Classical Antiquity
In the work of Plato where Socrates’ death is recounted, Phaedo, states that philosophy and its proper practice is simply “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” The ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus also practiced his own form of keeping the reality of death close by in the form of regularly visiting tombs and going into solitude.
The Roman triumph, which was a religious rite and civil ceremony that occurred in the time of ancient Rome, is also thought to have had a prominent display of the memento mori motif. These ceremonies were held after a military victory and would celebrate a military commander who was responsible for the win.
The general would wear a laurel crown and a purple toga embroidered with gold. In some retellings of these events, something curious was also occurring.
In these accounts, it is said that a public slave or companion would stand near this celebrated general during the procession. The idea here is that the general should be reminded of his own mortality. Even in times of great triumph, it seems the Romans understood the importance of understanding the great impermanence of life.
Perhaps it is no surprise that there is a deep philosophical relationship between ancient Egyptian and Roman culture, considering that the Romans and the Egyptians were destined to have a deep bond as soon as Julius Caesar fell for Cleopatra. It’s a long and fascinating story that you’ve probably heard at least bits and pieces of before, but, eventually, Octavius (Augustus) took all of Egypt and turned Nile-irrigated Egypt into the breadbasket of Rome.
However, the Egyptians were remembering death long before the Romans showed up in the form of their grand and magnificent pyramids.
How exactly did the Egyptians manage to build the pyramids? We don’t know for sure. What we do know, though, is that excavated pyramids, tombs, and mummies show that the ancient Egyptians were well aware of the ephemeral nature of death and went to great lengths to celebrate life through the building of pyramids and death chambers. Oh, yeah, and then there’s all that business about preserving human bodies.
It is also known that there was an ancient Egyptian custom where they would raise a skeleton at the end of a celebratory feast. With the skeleton held high, they would chant something along the lines of “Drink and be merry, for such shalt thou be when thou are dead.”
There are a number of passages in the Old Testament that encourage people to remember the reality of death. Such reminders can be found in Psalm 90, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah.
In Psalm 90, Moses makes a prayer that God will instruct his people “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In Isaiah, the length of human life is compared to how long grass lives.
Early Christianity placed a lot of focus on Heaven, Hell, and the potential for the soul to be saved after death. As Christianity grew, the expression memento mori developed alongside it.
In fact, it was a Christian writer from the 2nd century that told the story of Roman triumphal processions with a slave standing behind a victorious general. Because there aren’t any confirmations of this by ancient authors, some suspect that it was a moralistic invention rather than an actual representation of events that truly occurred.
Europe: Medieval Times to the Victorian Era
The concept of memento mori can be found in European philosophy, architecture, literature, visual art, and music from Medieval times to the Victorian Era.
There is a difference between the way that remembering death was interpreted by Christians during this time and the way people understood it in classical antiquity, however.
To the Christians, recognizing that death finds us all was an invitation to focus on the prospect of the afterlife and see that earthly pleasures, achievements, and luxuries were fleeting and empty.
In classical antiquity, on the other hand, the theme is more along the lines of “now is the time to drink, now is the time to dance footloose upon the earth.” (For those curious, this phrase comes from the Odes of Horace and is translated from the Latin nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus.
You can find tons of examples of memento mori meditations in Christian funeral art and architecture during this time. You can find such examples in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome and the Capela dos Ossos in Evora. In these chapels, the walls are covered in human bones. If you ever visit the Capela dos Ossos, you’ll find the sentence “We bones, lying here bare, await yours” inscribed.
Another memento mori example worth mentioning is the danse macabre, which is a depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying away people from all walks of life. Many European churches have these or similar depictions.
Even though the Puritans weren’t into art because they thought it could lead the faithful away from God and towards the devil, they were allowed to create portraits because they considered them to be historical records. In these portraits, you can find symbols such as skulls to presumably indicate the individual’s awareness of their own death.
The Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico is a classic example of the concept of memento mori. During this time, people will create individualized altars to remember those who have died, creating skulls out of compressed sugar and water to serve as a reminder of the cycles of life, and baking bread that are adorned with bread “bones.” There are regional differences in the way the Day of the Dead is celebrated, but the central theme is always bringing the reality of death to the forefront.
“Memento Mori”: Similar Concepts in Other Cultures and Religions
What do all people across time and space have in common? We all die. Religions and cultures around the world have incorporated this reality into their spiritual worldview and way of life, and it isn’t exclusive to western cultures. Let’s look at some of the other places where similar concepts crop up throughout time.
There is a mind training practice in Tibetan Buddhism known as Lojong, where four thoughts are contemplated:
- All compounded things are impermanent
- The human body is a compounded thing
- Therefore, death of the body is certain
- The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control
These verses were meant to be contemplated daily. If that’s not a meditation on death, I don’t know what is.
Samurai Culture and Japanese Zen
Contemplation of death in Zen Buddhism had a marked influence on the indigenous culture. This can be found in Hegakure, a classic work on samurai ethics, which states that the “Way of the Samurai” is “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 on death.
There is a compilation known as the Hávamál from 13th century Iceland. It is attributed to Odin, the god, and many of the proverbs express the concept of memento mori. The most famous iteration of this comes from Gestaþáttr number 77:
And thyself, too, shall die;
But only one thing i know that never dies
The tales of the one who died.”
Since the time of Muhammad in Medina, the topic of the remembrance of death has been prominent in Islam. The Qur’an repeatedly reminds people to pay attention to the fate met by previous generations.
Sufis are also sometimes referred to as the “people of the graves” because they frequently spend time in graveyards thinking about the vanity of life and mortality.
How to Practice “Memento Mori”
There are a lot of different ways that you can incorporate the remembrance of death into your everyday life.
One easy way is to set a timer for five minutes a day and simply think about death.
Think about your own death and what it will feel like to know that your life is over. Think about all of the ancestors that came before you and the fact that they once lived and now are dead.
You can also journal about death for five or ten minutes a day.
Maybe you can choose a quote about death to serve as your inspiration if you’re feeling like you have a bad case of writer’s block. Let yourself write fluidly and without censorship– no one ever has to see what you’re writing.
If those ideas don’t interest you, you might choose to make it a habit to take a short walk around your local cemetery once a week.
How Can Remembering Death Improve Your Life?
Throughout history, death was much more present in everyday life than it is in modern society. In our culture, we are largely shielded from the reality of death. It is therefore terrifyingly easy to go through an entire life without thinking much about one’s mortality or the mortality of those around us.
There are a lot of ways that remembering death and contemplating its inevitability can improve your life right now. If you think it’s too morbid to do so, it’s all the more an indication that this practice will be good for you. When you think that taking time to remember death is just a downer, you’re not grasping the essential point.
It Can Make You Happier
Maybe it seems strange to say that thinking about death could make you happier, but it’s true. One study asked participants to put a little time every day of one week into writing about “death or another aversive topic.” They could also reply to questions they received in an email every day during the week for somewhere between five and ten minutes.
This study found that a number of things happened to these participants after just one week of contemplating death:
- Increased positive mood
- Lower levels of depression
- Increased intrinsic motivation
- Increased self-esteem
Our culture seems to think that thinking about “bad” or “sad” topics will bring us down, but the opposite appears to be true. When we aren’t thinking about death, it’s a lot easier to get caught up fretting about small things that don’t matter. When we remember death, there is a strange, accompanying peace that develops.
The fact of the matter is, that we are all screwed up about what makes us happy. We think that happiness comes in the form of possessions, status, money, and comfort. The reality is that these things don’t make us happy, and instead enter us into an endless hamster wheel of seeking more and more of a feeling of instant gratification.
It Can Make You Healthier
When you are aware of death, it can motivate you to make the best of the life that you have while you have it. A number of studies have been done on the topic, with one finding that “conscious thoughts of death can spark greater fitness and exercise intentions.”
If you’re aware that you will die, and you let this realization encourage you rather than depress you, you’ll likely make different choices about your life throughout the day.
Instead of laying in bed letting the YouTube algorithm curate your experience, you might wake up early and hike up that mountain you’ve always wanted to climb. Not only are you motivated to make the best of your life, but the things that you pursue in order to reach that goal are likely a lot more active than typical American hobbies: playing video games, frittering away time on social media, and watching TV.
Studies have found that tough times can actually make you happier and kinder. When you contemplate death regularly, you are letting yourself look at the shadow we normally turn our back too. The result is a shift in perspective that can legitimately make you happier in your day-to-day life.
It Helps You Value Your Relationships
Remembering death is both about contemplating your own death but also all people across the world and across time. The reality is that you will die, your parents will die, your children will die, your spouse will die, and your friends will die. Only time will tell who precedes who, but one of the only certainties of life is the fact that we all die.
Maintaining relationships with your family, friends, and significant other can be incredibly difficult. We live in strange times when people are increasingly communicating digitally and one slightly not-crowd-approved opinion will result in a friend you’ve known for years ghosting you never to be heard from again. Even without the tension of the modern era, it’s easy to spend our lives focusing on all of the negative aspects of the people we know.
When you contemplate death, you remember that (in the words of the Flaming Lip’s most famous song) “everyone you know someday will die.”
It can help you get a better perspective on the relationships you have and how meaningful they are to you. On the contrary, maybe it will help you see that a particular relationship is all give and no take, and that your time is better spent with people you feel you can genuinely connect with.
Helps You Identify What Really Matters
Some people go through their whole lives in a sort of trance. Wake up, go to work, veg out, go to sleep, repeat. There are an infinite number of things you can fill your time with, and our culture is ready and willing to offer up any number of mind-numbing distractions from the reality of our mortality.
When you realize you’re going to die, it puts things in perspective. What matters to you? What kind of person do you want to be? How far away are you from being the person you want to be?
Helps You Value Your Time
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.” – Seneca the Younger
Have you ever noticed that some people seem so productive? I’m not arguing that the point of meditating on death is so you can run around like a chicken with its head cut off, but if you read the biographies of great men it’s often remarkable just how much they did, how many different seasons of life they had.
If you think your time is infinite, there’s no real reason to spend today doing something meaningful. After all, there’s always tomorrow.
When you meditate on death, you realize there might not be a tomorrow. If you incorporate this practice into your life, you might just find that you no longer want to spend hours streaming movies or spending another night at the bar with the same people having the same conversation.
It Can Keep You Humble
Maybe you’re on top of the world these days. You’re making tons of money, you receive tons of praise every day, and you’re living in an oceanfront mansion with a mountain view.
Then, one day, it all falls apart. Your colleagues have distanced themselves from you, your fancy cars are being repossessed, and you’re weighing out the pros and cons of filing for bankruptcy.
If you never imagined this could happen, it may very well destroy you. After all, your identity was all wrapped up in how fancy and successful you were.
If you’ve been meditating on death and the impermanence of all things, though, you’ll be much more humble, much more grateful, and much more able to bounce back when you need to.
Helps You Achieve Your Goals
“You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” – Marcus Aurelius
You only have so much time to do what you want to do in life. When you’re lying on your deathbed, inches away from the unknown, what do you want to look back on your life and see?
Helps You Appreciate the Present Moment
We can spend our entire lives focused on the past and the future. Maybe you can’t stop reliving a fight you had with your dad five years ago, or maybe you can’t stop thinking about your fear that you’ll be fired a few short years before you reach retirement age.
On the flip side, maybe you are stuck in an agonizing nostalgia for your high school days, or maybe you’re so focused on reaching your FIRE number that you never stop to smell the roses.
Whatever it may be, it’s worth understanding that spending more time in the present moment will make you happier.
Scientific studies have found this to be true– one study found that happiness is inversely related to mind wandering. The conclusion from this study was that redirecting our attention to the present moment away from our meandering thoughts that are everywhere but here is one of the keys to happiness.
Helps You Remember Not to Sweat the Small Stuff
Whether you’re worried, angry, sad, scared, manic, anxious, or some terrible combination of these emotions, a lot of times we’re focusing on stuff that doesn’t really matter in the big picture.
When you remember that death is inevitable, it can put everything in perspective. Sure, it sucks that you spilled coffee on your new white shirt, but is it the end of the world? No, likely not.
In the words of the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher:
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
If you spend your time thinking about things that don’t really matter, that impacts who you are. When you remember death, you’re less likely to waste your time focusing on the little things.
Helps Prepare You For Death in Your Life
There’s a good chance someone that is close to you will die before you do. Since our culture is so avoidant of death, this can come as an immense shock. When you meditate on death, you are preparing yourself for the inevitable– you will someday have to grieve the death of a loved one.
Connects You With Human History
We seem to think that we’ve exited history, that we live in a-historical time. In truth, though, we are still playing the same game everyone has been playing since the dawn of humanity (not to mention the microbes, the plants, the animals, and everything else that lives and dies.)
When you meditate on death, you are connected with a story much bigger than yourself. There is something beautiful about this, and it can help you escape getting wrapped up in trending stories and enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame.
Helps Prepare You For Your Own Death
One day, you’re going to die. Maybe you’ll die quickly without a moment to realize what’s happening, or maybe it will be a long process that occurs over months or years.
As a culture, we don’t like to confront this. We don’t want to talk about it, and we definitely don’t want to think about it.
No one has any idea when the day will come, all we know is that it will come. Even if a doctor tells you that you have six months to live, they’re just guessing based on what they know about the progression of your illness.
“Memento Mori”: Remember Death to Truly Live
When you think about death, it can help you get your life together. All of a sudden, you aren’t content lounging around eating fast food and watching reruns of The Office for hours on end. You see that the present moment is where you can exact change, work toward your goals, and be the person that you want to be.
If you’re still skeptical at this point, or simply unsure of how exactly to begin practicing memento mori, consider checking out these Stoic quotes about death. When you read about our finite nature from the mouths of these poetic and brilliant men, you might just find it’s easier to start confronting the reality of death in your life.
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