Memento Mori

“That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.” - Seneca

We are a limited and temporary process of becoming and ending. I am going to die, so are you, so is everyone we’ve ever known or loved. How frequently do other people consider their own mortality? Such reflections can arise when the universe throws us out of our usual patterns - perhaps with the sudden death of a loved one, a health scare, a major accident narrowly avoided, or some other upending of the status quo. Is it an experience full of fear and existential dread at the notion of not being? A topic better not thought about and quickly put away? A problem sidestepped by an appeal to religion (perhaps with an answer that is not examined too closely)? Or is it characterized by acceptance, a calm reckoning with the nature of the universe. In case it wasn’t obvious, I aspire to that last one. Which is why I make it a practice to reflect on dying.

To be clear, I have no wish to die. This is not wishful thinking or some morbid fascination. I intend to keep living and striving for as long as my body, mind and spirit will carry me. I understand why Dylan Thomas encourages us to rage against the dying of the light. Even so, I hope that when my time is up that I am able to die well. What does that mean, to die well? To do so in a dignified manner. Without giving in to fear. Without frantically appealing to whatever powers that be for more time. To face your end with courage and equanimity born of wisdom.

Memento Mori is a latin phrase meaning “remember death” or “remember that you will die”. During a Roman triumph a victorious general would enter the city to much pomp and circumstance. His four-horse chariot would lead a procession that highlighted his victory in some grand martial endeavor as the crowd cheered and celebrated him. Some chose to have an aide, soldier or slave close by to remind him - memento mori. At the height of great accomplishment, they wanted to be reminded of their mortality. In that sense, it’s a good way to keep the ego in check. In another, it’s a reminder that our time is limited, that we should be prepared for it to end, that every day matters and that we should not postpone what is important.

I’m not Roman general, so I have to do things differently. For example, I have installed a web browser extension that counts down the theoretical number of days remaining until my death. It’s a projection based on my age and various actuarial tables. Every time that I open a new tab or window, it displays this estimate. At present, it says I have 14,163.94 days. I suspect that number is too high. That many days would take me past 80. Which would be fine if I remained capable - where capable is defined as mental clarity and being able to go for long hikes.

Remaining capable. This brings us to one of the difficult points in a discussion about death. It is perhaps not the end that we fear but the prelude to it. Medicine has brought us to a place where we can survive past the point that we are capable of living. I find this less than ideal but I am not sure that there is a good solution. Of course, old age isn’t the only prelude. Health issues and accidents can result in a great deal of suffering before it’s over. I’d rather not have my last months, days or hours be a pain-filled prelude to nonexistence. Not that we get to choose. There is more than a little suffering and tragedy to our lives, we must learn to endure what we cannot change.

Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that there is an end to all things. The living die, civilizations fall, stories fade, species go extinct. Wind and rain wear away the mountains in slow oblivion. The sun that has powered and sustained our living world will eventually boil the oceans and burn our Earth to cinders before consuming it. As beautiful and vast as the universe is, some day the last of the stars will cease to burn1. The fate of all things a trillion trillion years hence might as well be an eternity when our time is less than a century. Even so, what seems eternal will eventually fade.

Some might find this to be a recipe for nihilism. If all things end then what does any of it matter? I have little patience for nihilism. It is intellectual cowardice. It is looking at the broad expanse of reality and not standing tall to show yourself worthy of being. To quote one fictional AI, “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”2 We’re not here for eternity. We’re here for each other. Our actions and contributions are not meaningless because it isn’t time that defines meaning, it’s connection. A good life, a life of meaning, is one where we better the world by bringing the best of ourselves and our gifts to the service of others. It’s a life of love, friendship, struggle, conversation, laughter, sacrifice, work, experience, creativity, and giving lived a day at a time. Such days can only be lived when you know deep in the core of your being that they are limited. Memento mori.

  1. It is possible that this model of the ultimate fate of the universe is incorrect. If so, then some alternate ending (possibly a collapse back into a singularity) will take it’s place. The physics of how it ends are less important than the fact that it will.
  2. I don’t normally bring comic book movies into a philosophical discussion, but some quotes are too good. This one is spoken by the character Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron.