Perhaps the spiritual exercise that has fallen furthest from popularity and common usage is the memento mori, the remembrance of death. This is surprising, and revealing of our own culture, because before the mid-20th century, it was actually one of the most popular and widely-used spiritual techniques.
The memento mori is a meditative exercise to remind the spiritual adept that the things of the world — the body, fashion, career, reputation, even family — should not be the primary focus of our minds, because these things can be swept away by death in a moment.
Instead, the central aim of philosophy, as declared by Socrates, was to ‘’learn how to die’. For Plato, that meant learning to free the divine part of them — their soul — from the body and the passions. Thereby, we became less like animals, and more like gods. One way to free ourselves from the body was to remind ourselves that the body is just a vehicle, and one destined for the scrap-heap.
Thus Marcus Aurelius exhorted himself: “Stop letting yourself be distracted…Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries.”
Consider, he tells himself, the “decomposition of matter which underlies each one of us: water, dust, bones, stench”.
Another exercise is to remind oneself how all the glorious figures of the past, the wise, the beautiful and the powerful, are all now dead and buried. This is an antidote against any excessive vanity over one’s achievements, or self-loathing over one’s failures. It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’ — remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.
Don’t take your worldly achievements (or lack of) too seriously, the Stoics counsel, because they won’t mean much when your dead. Aurelius writes:
Hippocrates cured many illnesses — and then fell ill and died. The Chaldeans predicted the deaths of many others; in due course, their own hour arrived. Alexander, Pompey, Caeser — who utterly destroyed so many cities, cut down so many thousand foot and horse in battle — they too departed this life. Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire. But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared in cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin, Socrates by the human kind.
This exercise developed into a whole genre of literature, known as the Ubi Sunt, or ‘where are they now’. My favourite example is the Old English tenth century poem The Wanderer, in which an exiled knight mournfully ponders what has happened to all his old comrades:
Where is the horse gone?
Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
The memento mori reminds us that, even amid the security and prosperity of great civilisations like that of Rome or the West today, death can come at any time. Conventional values teach us to fear death and hate it, as an intrusion of savage nature into our carefully-ordered plans. But the Stoic trains themselves to see through conventional values, to accept death as a part of the ebb and flow of nature.
Marcus Aurelius writes:
Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth…This is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happens to us.
Keeping death in mind was, for the Stoics, a way of freeing ourselves from fear of losing our worldly possessions, including our body. It was a way of cultivating inner freedom, of releasing ourselves from bondage to the world.
The Renaissance aristocrat and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who was deeply influenced by Stoic thought, put it well:
let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it; let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant, let us invoke it in our imagination under all its aspects…To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
The exercise became very popular in Christian culture, where it was often used to remind Christians not to cling to the worldly life too much, but instead to focus on the after-life. We see it particularly used during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance: a period of growing economic prosperity and worldly achievement. Nonetheless, the culture of that time would often regulate its pride in human achievement with a reminder of man’s mortality.
A good example is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is perhaps the most Stoic of his plays. In the middle of all the optimism and expansion of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare wrote a play in which almost all the characters die, and the hero declares the futility of all human endeavour:
What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable,
in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals
— and yet,to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
But it wasn’t just poets who dwelt on death. Merchants and aristocrats would wear rings with skulls on them, or have death figures engraved into their furniture. They would get portraits of themselves painted in all their finery, with a skull in the background. Churches would be decorated with danse macabres, depicting grinning skeletons cavorting with reluctant mortals. Sarcophagi would show sculptures of aristocrats lying in serene repose, and beneath them, depictions of rotting corpses.
Charnel houses would exhibit hundreds of skulls and bones stacked up in a grim reminder of our fate. People would visit them to stir themselves into a less worldly and more holy existence. In the words of an old Breton hymn:
Let us to the charnel, Christians, let us see the bones
Of our brothers…
Let us see the pitiful state that they have come to…
You see the brothers, crumbled into dust
Listen to their lesson, listen well.
The memento mori wasn’t necessarily always a denigration of worldly existence. It could also be used as a melancholy reminder that, despite the pleasures of this world, still death was ubiquitous, therefore we should enjoy ourselves while we can. Montaigne mentions the example of the custom in ancient Egypt, where during the heigh of a banquet, the Egyptians would bring in a mummified corpse, held up by a man crying ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you shall be like this.’
The exercise started to fade from common usage in the Victorian era, the age of the industrial revolution and of widespread optimism in man’s scientific achievements. The Victorians were still fascinated by death. But instead of the memento mori’s emphasis on the body’s decomposition, Victorian death scenes tended to be highly Romanticised and idealised visions, that emphasised not the transience of the self, but its specialness and the specialness of its relationships.
The sculpture of Shelley’s corpse in University College, Oxford, is a good example. There are no worms or skulls here — the Romantic poet is preserved in unsullied alabaster, and seems to have given up his spirit effortlessly to a purer Platonic realm beyond this material veil.
And then, in the modern era, the memento mori all but disappears as a spiritual technique, beyond the occasional discreet hint, like Christians putting ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday (which was this week). Certainly it disappears as a therapeutic technique. While the self-help movement may have pilfered many ideas and techniques from Stoicism, it has steered a wide berth around its emphasis on human mortality.
Imagine if, on the Oprah show, Dr Phil were to lean forward and say, ‘You know, Oprah, there’s no real point getting worked up about life. We’re all just corpses anyway.’ The show would be unplugged, and his career would be over.
Modern academics have tended to see Aurelius’ musings on death and decomposition as an indication of his morbid and overly-pessimistic personality. We have forgotten that it was an exercise, with a specific goal in mind — loosening one’s attachment to the body and the self, in order to liberate the divine soul within us.
A similar exercise is still used in Buddhism in Asia, in a much more radical form. In the ancient practice of asubhabhavana, monks go to meditate in cemeteries, surrounded by corpses, and solemnly contemplate the ten stages of decomposition — bloated, fissured, bloody, festering, blueish, chewed up, scattered about, reduced to bone, and burnt.
The technique was put forward by the Buddha himself, in the Satapathana Sutta, as one of the four techniques for ‘arousing of mindfulness’:
[A] monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up and from the crown of the head down, thinking, ‘There are in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, intestines, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, saliva, mucus, urine….
And further, if a monk sees a body dead for one day, or two or three, swollen, discoloured, decomposing, thrown aside in the cemetery, he applies this perception to his own body, ‘Truly, this body of mine, too, is of the same nature, it will become like that and will not escape it.’
But this aspect of Buddhism has also been sidelined by the West. We want to be told we are shining Tantric warriors, not rotting corpses.
Modern society has, in the words of Philippe Aries, the great French historian, “banished death from society”. It used to be a public event — wars were very visible, executions were public, animal slaughters happened in public, mourning rituals, wakes and funeral processions were common public sights.
Our graveyards have been planted next to churches…so that women, children and lesser folk should grow accustomed to seeing a dead man without feeling terror, and so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human conditions.
Now death has been covered over and hidden. We see death only on TV, in the occasional reports of massacres at the fringes of civilisation, in the ghoulish piles of skulls and bodies from the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia or Rwanda. That was the shock of the TV images of September 11: here was death, publicly displayed in the middle of our civilisation. Not movie death. Real death. It has become an object of secret voyeuristic fascination.
After the Vietnam War, which brought the reality of violent death into American homes and onto their TV screens, armies have learnt to restrict press access and bring home corpses of soldiers zipped up in body bags and smuggled in to secluded military airports.
Animal slaughter has been shifted out of sight, sterilised, mechanised, made clean. Human illness and death has been taken from the home and shifted into the sterilised environment of the hospital, where it takes place behind a discreet plastic curtain. Mourning is no longer a public, communal event. Cities take no notice of the disappearance of one of their millions of inhabitants.
Instead of accepting death as natural, medicine has taught us to believe that something can always be done to stave it off. We wage the ‘war on cancer’, the ‘war on heart disease’ — basically, the war on death. Some take this literally, and seek scientific means for massive life extension or even immortality — like the transhumanist FM-2030, who froze his body so he could be thawed when we have discovered the means for immortality (there’s a new documentary about him, by the way, which you can watch here).
New cures can always be discovered. Positive thinking can cause miracles. “Don’t worry, I’m a fighter” becomes the expected refrain of the critically ill. Death must be resisted, because there is nothing else but life.
There is nothing but the body. We must preserve it at all cost, celebrate its beauty, build up its muscles, tan its skin, hide any signs of sickness or ageing with plastic surgery.
In such a culture, it is unsurprising the memento mori has all but disappeared. There are traces of its survival — in Damien Hirst’s art, for example, such as his exhibit of a hunk of meat slowly being eaten by flies, or his skull made of diamonds. But even here, there seems to be an inability to go beyond our culture of glamour and materialism — Hirst’s famous pickled shark is called, tellingly, ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’.
Goth sub-culture shows, by contrast, an apparent inability to consider anything but death. It is at the centre of Goth and metal imagery, in skull tattoos, on the covers of albums, in bands’ songs and band names: MegaDeath, Death Denied, Slayer, Dismember, Autopsy, Anatomy.
It’s as if, through some cultural eco-system, the denial of death by the majority of western society has forced this sub-culture of outsiders to become obsessed by it.
But you couldn’t say that the Goth obsession with death is really a memento mori in anything like the Stoic sense. The ancients used it to accept the natural cycle of life and death, to transcend the self, to achieve harmony with the cosmos, to overcome their pride and egotism. Goths and metal-heads, by contrast, use the imagery of death to assert their uniqueness, their rebellion against conventional society, their Romantic or adolescent appetite for destruction. They move from an attachment to life to an attachment to death.
Personally, I have found the memento mori a useful occasional exercise, particularly in moments where I am getting down on myself for my perceived failures. Why aren’t I more successful, more famous, more celebrated? I remind myself that I will die in a few years, or a few decades, and any fame I achieved would be very fleeting. Human life is a brief instant, so why not enjoy it as a gift, without imposing my own demands or expectations on it?
Near death experiences can often be life-affirming, reminding us not to sweat the small stuff, to appreciate existence, to tell those we love that we love them, and to focus on the projects most important to us while we still have life.
This is the idea at the essence of Tyler Durden’s extreme self-help course in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, in which Durden holds a gun to the head of a petrol station attendant, and asks him what’s the one thing he wants to do with his life. The terrified attendant replies he always wanted to be a veterinarian. Durden replies: “I’m keeping your license. I know where you live. I’m going to check on you. If you aren’t back in school and on your way to being a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead. Get the hell out of here.”
My own life was transformed by something approaching a near-death experience, when I was 21. I was at that time still struggling with depression and social anxiety, working for a financial magazine where I felt bored and alienated, and estranged from both my colleagues, my parents, and the human race in general. It manifested physically: my sense of physical feeling and contact became numbed.
My family went skiing in Norway, staying at our family hut in the Peer Gynt region in the middle of the country, as we do every year. On the first morning there, I raced down the black slope of Valsfjell mountain, and flew off the side of the slope, falling 30 feet, breaking my femur and two vertebrae, and knocking myself unconscious.
When I came to, I saw a shining white light, as hippy as that sounds, and felt filled with peace and love. I felt, at that moment, that there is something in us that can never be lost or broken, that we were all OK, even if our bodies wore out or our worldly plans came adrift. And I also knew, very clearly, that the thing I most wanted to do with the rest of my life was write books. That’s what is most important to me.
What does all of this have to do with the coronavirus? Well, it’s telling us a lot about our attitudes to death. Epidemiologists predict as many as 60–80% of humans could get the coronavirus, and 1–3% could die from it (particularly the elderly and infirm). That would mean, at the top end of estimates, the death of 228 million people. The government is working on its ‘excess death contingency planning’ — ie where to put all the extra bodies. Cheery eh?
But that’s the worst case scenario. It may turn out to be not much worse than the seasonal flu, which kills thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — in the UK each year, and which doesn’t drive us into a frenzy. Panic could be more dangerous than the actual illness — a complete freezing of all economic activity for three months would plunge the world into a global recession, which could very well cause more suffering than the actual illness.
So we need to face this situation like adults.
I don’t really fear my own death. I am curious, to be honest. The mystery of it. We step through that door and then…what? I have a strong sense there is something beyond this life, but that’s just my sense.
Anyway, the next few months are going to be messy, for countries, governments and societies right across the world. Let’s try and be kind to each other, show our loved ones that we love them, support our health workers, and face crises like adults — with courage, defiance and hope.