Memento mori is Latin for “Remember Death”. We come to the term specifically from a tradition of medieval Latin Christian practices but similar concepts are found among many religions and philosophies, that death is (despite it’s seemingly titillating and distressing nature) easily forgettable. Or at least, ours is. One could even make the point that we spend so much time obsessed with other people’s deaths because they are effective distractions from our own impending bodily disintegration. Whether you think that we are discarnate souls temporarily affixed to a body destined for decay or truly flesh and blood mortals changes little. What we call physical death is coming for us, our own personalized apocalypses, regardless. A time of uncertain flux, at the very least. Total oblivion at the most. I remain neutral on the subject; I’ll find out in due time, after all.
I remember one of my own brushes with death, a most memorable and catalyzing experience, the time I nearly caught an arm in a piece of construction machinery that would be difficult to describe. Niche problems arise in the construction or maintenance of a house, and niche tools are needed to overcome these problems. The sleeve of my sweatshirt got caught on a whirling, steel bar. I was annoyed. The air was so cold that every breathing hurt, and snowbanks covered the sidewalks and roads. I could see my exhalation misting in the air. I was annoyed that the sleeve of my expensive work-quality brand name hoodie was caught in the churning metal. When it slammed me into the side of itself, and then pulled me up and over into it’s maw, I was in denial. It was so sudden, so swift and final, that I was in a state of shock. I spread my arms and legs out and a part of me began to scream, a distant facet of self that felt disconnected from my mind as I began to feel irritated… finality. I was to be crushed to death, this was my exit. Not dying in an old age in my sleep. Not surrounded by family or friends. Twisted to death in the freezing cold at a job that I hated, living a life I was unhappy with. While the disconnected part of me screamed, muffled somehow, I sunk into myself and sunk into an overwhelming sense of regret.
The machine’s fuse blew, shutting it off automatically as I was caught half inside of it. I had tucked my arm into the body of my clothes and the sleeve had wrapped around moving parts enough so that it caused it to shut down. Not a safety mechanism exactly, but fortunate nonetheless. Reflecting back on the event, I am still struck to this day by the pervasive sense of regret. I was not prepared for it. For some reason or another I was convinced that upon dying I would be peaceful, though I suppose in a sense I was. On one hand, I had experienced a splitting; part of my consciousness had recessed into itself and was numb, another aspect screamed his head off, making noises like a trapped animal, noises I did not know I was capable of.
The part of me that felt the peace of the numbness was the same part that in a semi-detached way was awash in regret. I had thrown my life away. I had sunken into depression. I was wasting time and allowing myself to be miserable and unappreciative of life and vitality. That regret was terrible in a way that no powerful anger or hatred or sadness can compare. The total gravity of the wastefulness I had perpetrated against myself was immense; I would soon leave it all behind to wander penniless across the United States, caught in a strange liminal existence, not feeling quite in the world and not dead.
One of the first places I hit up on the subject of death was Buddhism, and later Stoicism. I would read over the Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Hagakure, the Enchiridion. I would read absurdist literature, existentialist books. I’d discover “amor fati” and mull over the words of mystics and philosophers.
“The oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle”
An oppressive sense of shock (and all the rest) was spot-on to describe how I was feeling. Complacent and foolish. There are eight samvega vatthu, or “bases” of samvega according to Sujiva, a Malaysian Buddhist monk, listed as “birth, old age, sickness, death, suffering in the woeful worlds, the round of suffering as rooted in the past, the round of suffering as rooted in the future, and the round of suffering in the search for food in the present.”
The phenomena is thought of as ultimately positive, samvega propels you forward. Buddhists seek to cultivate this sense of urgency via maraṇasati, or ‘death-awareness” which they cultivate through meditation, by contemplating various states of decay their body will be in once they are dead. They ‘game’ the instinctual aversion to death in such a way to help them become more like who they would prefer to be.
Whether the propellant that is samvega pushes you into the quest for Nirvana or something else is probably a matter of what your ideals are, your character and predispositions. I’m not a Buddhist so I can’t say that the ‘spiritual urgency’ necessarily has contributed towards my becoming enlightened, but hey, it pushed me into leaving everything behind and living homeless, regularly sleeping outside. Part of my inspiration for doing so (other than a blind, sheer, mind-splitting existential crises) were in fact ascetic and mendicant Buddhist practitioners, whom I had read about. Before I returned to my home state and back into modern living, giving up the transient life of a drifter, I had learned how to induce lucid dreaming, meditate for long stretches of time, go without food and water for days, and how to live outside. The gifts, as it were, yielded from the spiritual urgency I felt to try to make sense of myself, the world, and my place in it.
Stoicism likewise helped me address death. I had read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius several times in the past, after coming back from my itinerant lifestyle. I now had to deal with a life bereft of adventure, full of toils and strain, and everyday I had to get back up and be in the thick of it. I worked long, hard hours. I had learned so much while out and traveling the country, I needed time to sit and process everything I had experienced. I began to become overwhelmed, working overtime every week at a construction job that left me physically drained. I had no energy for creative projects, for personal relationships, for past hobbies that gave me pleasure. I only had enough life in me to give to the job, and I began to unravel, emotionally and psychologically. But then I read the words of Marcus Aurelius, from his personal journal long since re-printed thousands if not millions of times:
“See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgement in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed, and be quiet at last. For the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.”
“But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”
Memento mori means “Rememeber Death”, but an event or object that reminds you of your death is also a ‘memento mori’. Some of them might appear to be omens at times, spat out at you by nature or happenstance and giving ill portents. But I think that Epictetus had a point, as well as the Buddhists; being reminded of our own death can be put to good use to help us be better people while we are still alive. Like samvega, or lucky omens, we can use this death-awareness to push us into motion, can help us actualize our ideal selves or situations. Closing ourselves off to being reminded of our own finite vitality is merely a temporary fix to an ever approaching, universal experience, robbing ourselves of a productive sense of urgency all the while.