Memento Mori: Remember You’re Mortal

I love the story about how, when generals were parading through the streets of Rome during a victory march, a slave would be tasked with walking behind them saying memento mori — remember you’re mortal.

How great is that? Here’s a Roman general, top of the pile, a massive celebrity (like the Jay-Z of his day), and there’s this slave reminding him that he’s mortal and not to get too high above himself because he too can die.

Personally, I think we need more of that today — humility and the awareness to realize and accept that we are mortal, destined to die.

Death rarely is a fun topic to bring up, especially when you’re picking up a grande latte at Starbucks first thing in the morning. Not because it’s not an interesting subject, but more because people rarely acknowledge or want to think about their mortality.

So why is talk of death an unusual subject? It’s a shared experience every human on the planet will go through (hands up if you’re about to stop reading this article because it’s too heavy). Richard Dawkins put it most elegantly: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born.”

Isn’t that amazing? We are so lucky. We are here and now. We can feel emotions such as love and happiness. We can express joy and laughter. We can feel warmed by the sun, chilled by the wind, cooled by the rain. We can witness so much beauty in the world, gasp at nature’s creativity, do amazing intellectual feats to understand it all. Yet, we’re still unable to stop the inevitable degradation of our bodies and eventual death. Bummer.

The idea of death seems to go against our Western philosophy of being able to choose what we want. We can choose to buy that big 60″ HDTV with the surround sound home-cinema system, but we can’t choose not to die. Who decided that nonsense? No wonder most people will do anything they can to avoid the inevitable (myself included).

Have you ever seen the movie “Logan’s Run”? That film had a profound affect on me when I was younger. In the film, to control population, when people reach 30 years old they’re summoned to the carousel to be ‘renewed’ (killed), and I used to think that was a great idea — until I reached 30 and realized it’s a terrible idea!

So what is our problem with thinking and talking about death? In his Pulitzer-prize winning book Death Denial, Ernest Becker argues that most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. But this type of thinking is totally irrational because death is inevitable, and this denial will only cause major complications in our lives.

I think many people are realistic enough to hold a healthy preference about their own death, “I’d really prefer not to die, but I also know that it will happen one day.”

However, there are many more people that hold a rigid demand about death, “I absolutely must not die, it is too terrible to comprehend. I can’t stand it.” Due to this unhealthy thinking, people often become overly busy, doing things to distract themselves from thinking about their mortality. Others strive for wealth and power as a way to shield themselves from the inevitable — “maybe if I’m rich, I can buy my way clear of death.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Just ask Steve Jobs, Joe Weider, or Jerry Buss. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or fame you have, or how busy you are, you can’t beat death.

The other way society avoids thinking about death is with this relentless drive for immortality. You’ve got to look young in society to be acceptable, so take your pills, exercise, stop drinking sugary soda, pray and you might live forever. But hasn’t this irrational goal held humanity back and caused irreparable divisions between people and cultures?

Let’s face it, death is a non-discriminatory experience. Our denial about something that is as natural as birth needs to be accepted and valued. Let’s bring our fear of death to the forefront of our awareness. Death denial will only lead to a life of fear and anxiety, and that’s not healthy.