Memento Mori translates roughly from the Latin phrase as “remember, you’re going to die.”

Cheery, I know.

It’s not normally something we’d sit around talking about over a beer.

If anything, it’s an area of life that you and I probably do our best to avoid.

But the concept of Memento Mori is stitched into our day-to-day lives, and it’s part of the fabric of Stoic philosophy, a philosophy that can have a profound impact on the way we view life and is the focus of our discussion.

Simply put; when we accept that our time is limited, we can find enjoyment in the areas of life we often take for granted.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca once 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.”

Despite how it sounds, reminding ourselves of death can have a profound impact on the way we live our lives and the appreciation we have for even the most mundane of experiences.

“Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.”

Marcus Aurelius

While the denial of death can make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, it can lock us out of the benefits that can come from its contemplation.

After all, we’re all going to die. We’re all temporary; our time is limited, and our experience of this crazy ride of life will come to an end.

Memento Mori Infographic

The Stoics and ancient Greeks teach that with a good reminder of our own death or the death of others, we can learn how to live a life of resilience, good health, and general wellbeing. Counter-intuitively, thinking about death can help us live better, happier, and more present lives, and here’s how…

Page Break Image of a Greek TempleWhat exactly is Memento Mori?

Memento Mori is a phrase that has spread itself across both time and culture.

It’s been used in the meditation practices of the Buddhists and in the philosophy of the Stoics, all in an effort to find gratitude for life and a perspective that makes our existence more vibrant.

In very simple terms, Memento Mori serves as a personal reminder for us to be mindful and present in any given moment. It reminds us to think about the impermanence of life, the limited time we all have, and the fact that what we’re doing right now might be the last time we ever do it.

This could be speaking to friends, embracing family, reading our favourite book, or doing our favourite hobby. No matter how old we are, there will be a last time we do any of these, and it’s never clear when that will be.

The Stoic Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius once said:

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Far from a morbid fixation, this ancient wisdom encourages us to recognize the transient nature of life and our existence and, in doing so, can help us to live with intention, courage, and gratitude.

The reality of death is one of life’s guarantees. No matter where you are born, how rich you are, or what you do during your life, you will die. Death is simply change, and change is life.

Humor me for a moment and imagine that you only have one week left to live.

I imagine that you have a list of things that you would do, people that you would spend time with, and places you’d go.

Memento Mori uses the same principle, but instead of one week, we have 80 years or so, and we remind ourselves of our limited time every day to make sure we leave nothing on the table and we use our time as best we can.

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

How Can We Use Memento Mori?

While the concept is old, we can still use the reminder of death to our advantage and see a significant benefit in our ability to appreciate the present moment and find gratitude in the people and things around us.

While memento mori might seem like one of the last things we should think about (because it sounds depressing), the Stoics include it as part of a proper practice of philosophy, and through a reminder of our mortality, we can find that we can live a more intentional, grateful, and purposeful existence.

Here are some practical ways to use memento mori in our everyday lives:

  1. Daily reflection: Set aside a few moments each day to contemplate the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. This practice can help us stay grounded, prioritize our time and energy, and remind us to make the most of every moment.

  2. Gratitude practice: Memento mori encourages us to appreciate the people, experiences, and opportunities in our lives. Cultivate gratitude by regularly expressing thankfulness for the things you cherish and the time you have to enjoy them.

  3. Mindful decision-making: When faced with decisions, both large and small, use memento mori as a guiding principle to evaluate the choices before you. Ask yourself, “If my time were limited, how would I want to spend it? What actions and priorities would be most meaningful to me?”

  4. Foster deeper connections: Recognizing the fleeting nature of life can inspire us to nurture our relationships with greater care and intention. Make an effort to spend quality time with loved ones, express your feelings openly, and be present and engaged during your interactions.

  5. Embrace courage: Memento mori can embolden us to take risks, face our fears, and pursue our dreams. By remembering that our time is finite, we may be more inclined to seize opportunities, explore new experiences, and step outside our comfort zones.

  6. Cultivate detachment: Reminding ourselves of our mortality can help us develop a healthy detachment from material possessions, achievements, and social status. This awareness fosters a deeper appreciation for the truly important aspects of life, such as love, compassion, wisdom, and inner peace.

  7. Focus on personal growth: Memento mori can inspire us to prioritize self-improvement and the cultivation of virtues such as wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. By recognizing the impermanence of life, we can be motivated to continually strive to become the best version of ourselves.

The History of Memento Mori

Stoicism and Memento Mori:

The ancient Stoic philosophy is full of examples that instruct its students to meditate on death and contemplate our own mortality. Whether that’s to promote a life of virtue, build gratitude, or simply understand the nature of the world we’re in.

In his letters, Seneca speaks of the benefits of the practice of memento mori:

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.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus recommends that whenever you spend time with your loved ones, whenever you hug your family or kiss your partner, you should remind yourself that they are mortal. One day, they won’t be there.

This constant reminder of death helps us appreciate what we have. Impermanence makes things more valuable.

Even the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius practiced Memento Mori and expressed a similar sentiment, contemplating his mortality to guide his actions. In his own private journal, we find:

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.

Stoic philosophers did not see death as a morbid idea to be avoided. It was an aspect of life to be accepted and used to appreciate each new day, remain grateful for the time we have, prioritize actions, and not waste time.

Plato and Memento Mori:

In Plato’s Phaedo, he recounts the death of Socrates, arguably Athens’ most famous philosopher.

Socrates famously met his death with a calm indifference; his last words were said to be uttered to a close friend about paying a debt of chickens.

Plato argues that the study of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying.” Therefore, a philosopher should always have death at the forefront of their mind.

Japanese Zen & The Samurai:

We’ve all heard of the Samurai. We all probably wanted to be one when we were kids. But how many times have you come across their philosophy?

The Samurai used death as a mental practice to enjoy life, conquer fear, and become better warriors.

“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”

A comparison can be made between human life and the Japanese cherry blossoms.

In Japan, the cherry blossom has become part of the culture. The pink-white blossoms can be followed through the country as they move north with the change in temperature. A large part of what makes the blossoms so beautiful is that they only last for a week.

In a similar way, the enjoyment of life becomes more profound because it is fleeting.

Memento Mori & Buddhism:

The Buddhists of Tibet have a practice called Lojong, ancient practice of reflection, in which there are “The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind.” One of these thoughts is the contemplation of death and our impermanence.

It consists of the following:

  1. All things made from other things are impermanent.

  2. The human body is a thing made from other things.

  3. Therefore, the death of the body is certain.

  4. The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.

This idea was designed for daily contemplation, to prevent the natural human tendency to behave as though we have all the time in the world.

This central teaching of the Buddhist practice is called maranasati, or “death awareness” and is thought to be a core part of living a better life.

You and I can gain a lot from using some of this Buddhist wisdom. It helps us become aware of how short our time really is, and in doing so, it helps us question whether or not we are making the most of the time we have.

We can also see Memento Mori and symbols of mortality in more modern cultures. In the seventeenth century, the French painter Philippe de Champagne famously painted a human skull between a flower and an hourglass. This painting depicts the certainty of death, time, and the impermanence of life simply by painting still life.

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

Final Thoughts:

For me, the simple reminder of Memento Mori has a certain amount of order and chaos.

Our base human nature is chaos; over time, it will influence us to act like we will live forever. It will normalize our lives and make it easy for us to take it for granted.

This chaos is balanced by the order we apply through conscious thought, awareness, and gratitude. This order helps us appreciate what we have and prevents our more primitive nature from taking it all for granted.

However, order is like bathing. You can expect to do it once and stay clean. It requires constant maintenance, or we risk slipping back to taking life for granted and behaving like our lives will never end, inevitably being shocked when it comes and maybe a little regretful.

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  7. Excellent piece. I am a Christian which for some reason is usually omitted from Stoic discussions as if we don’t believe that we will die. Actusally the notion of asking for Christ’s saving forgiveness is almost always in the context of dying when we least expect it. For Christians, I would make the case that Memento Mori is of even greater importance than for other faiths or beliefs because if we “postpone” coming to Jesus and die before being saved, the results are much worse for us personally than simply forgetting to saying good bye or I love You to a loved one. So let’s not exclude the importance of Memento Mori for Christians.
    I am just finishing Discourses by Epictitus, maybe one of the most important of all Stoic works and one that helped Admiral Stockdale get through bouts of horrific torture at the Hanoi Hilton.

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