With the de facto focus on the things of life and the pursuits therein, whether trivial or meaningful, remembering death has been an important facet to life for centuries. The concept of memento mori, the reminder of death, has evolved over the years from actual skulls to pictures, to other tokens and reminders that death is always merely a heartbeat away. Even more than the proximity of death, the idea of memento mori also functioned as a reminder of the assurance of death, that whether now or later, death visits everyone.
The reason that the reminder of death required a token and an intentional awareness, is that often death is removed from the trappings involved in daily life. This removal has increased over the course of human history with life isolated from death. This has occurred with fewer and fewer people dying at home, with more people dying in the hospital, and the rituals of death and preparation discreetly hidden away from the common eye. In this setting, the memento mori makes sense and takes on an important role in recognizing the importance of life and the framing of human endeavors, accomplishments, and undertakings in light of death.
In the hospital, the reverse is found. There is no need for a memento mori as there is a reminder every hour of every day that one is mortal, that death visits everyone, often at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways. Whenever someone becomes ill there is a search for a reason why, something that someone could have done to prevent the illness. Yet even with the most preventable of diseases there can often be little certainty that the specific disease in the specific individual could have been prevented. Each encounter is a token, a reminder of the concept of memento mori, that illness and then death are the lot of humans, and that there is no escaping this end. The interactions with patients and their family members whether in person or in review of past cases, serve as a perpetual reminder that everyone dies; even more than this, that YOU will die.
The purpose of a memento mori is to clarify and refine life, to push one to forgo things that are meaningless and to pursue the things that matter in the setting of a finite life, with finite time and resources. The memento mori is specifically a reminder not a constant and overbearing focus. The call is not to obsess about death such that one is unable to live, but to remind oneself that death is the end and encouraging one to vigorously re-engage in life. When one’s primary endeavor, the occupation in which one spends most of their waking hours is, in and of itself, a memento mori, the struggle is remembering and valuing life, not remembering that one will die. Whereas, for the vast majority of society remembering death is the counter-cultural phenomenon, when one is surrounded by disease and death, remembering life becomes the counter-cultural phenomenon. The practice of memento mori is not the isolated drive towards death, but rather the opposite. It is to hold both life and death in balance, to allow the understanding and reminder of death to permeate and enrich life. Remembering death is the road to a richer life. Both death and life must be remembered together as life is defined in its finitude by death, and death only is made possible when there is life.
Memento vivre. Remember you have to live.