I was once told a story about a ritual observed by the generals of the Roman Empire after a victorious campaign. As the general was paraded in full shining regalia through the streets of Rome, waving atop his chariot to the people gathered in celebration, he would have a slave standing beside him, a little further back. This slave would be holding a dagger to his back, concealed from the populace by the general’s cloak. Periodically, he would lean in and whisper:
Remember death. Recall, oh victorious one, that you are mortal. That your victory – and life – is but a plaything of the Gods, a thin thread ready to be plucked from the wheel of Fate.
I’m doubtful that this story represents, in fact, historical reality. It seems a bit too perfect, a bit too wise. It remains, nonetheless, one of my favorite stories, because it is true in a sense far more critical than the historical truism. It is true because it is useful.
A couple of days ago, a friend’s baby daughter died at one year of age. Upon being told this, my American friends were dismayed from me not using the term “passed away.” In the Portuguese language, we don’t have an equivalent to “passed away,” unless you stretch it. Death is serious business. That girl died. It’s up to the philosophers and theologians to discuss what happens after that.
For the rest of us, what’s left is to take in the full brunt of the experience, to take in the sorrow of the mother as she closed the casket, weeping all along. To feel the father straining in his self-control, knowing full well that he could not crumble at that moment, that his wife needed him as support. To feel the shock of the grandparents, the cousins, the aunts, and uncles, who were deprived of a shining beacon of light, forever snuffed from their lives.
This is a real-life “Memento Mori.” Remember death. It’s for this reason that it is our responsibility – and our privilege – to bear the full burden of suffering and sorrow, with no sugarcoating, of the event. Because, if nothing else, it is a costly reminder that all that we cherish and love is but a gift that can be revoked at any moment, with little to no notice. The grim reality is that, but for the whim of fate, it could have been me, or any of the people reading these lines, standing there, closing the lid of the coffin over the face of a loved one.
The point of memento mori is not to lead you to depression and despair. The value of these words is in the reminder to cherish what you have, to cherish the people you love while they are here, no matter how imperfect they are and how strained the circumstances of your life might be. To be kind and compassionate and humble in your victories, because even as you parade in all your glory, the specter of death holds a cold dagger to your back. You live and celebrate and enjoy happiness at Fate’s discretion.
If you kiss your loved ones with the full realization that it might be the last time you can do so, then you’ll cherish the moment appropriately. Because one day, it will indeed be the last time. Death will touch either one of you. And while we like to play the “age game” in our minds and tell ourselves that we know who will go first, that is but an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves. Every one of us has their clock ticking, the hourglass steadily emptying, but no-one knows how much sand lies within.
As I can’t afford to own a slave, there are a couple of trinkets that I find useful to have around for the purposes of “Memento Mori.” I’m linking them here because I think they are worth having; I earn no compensation from the people who produce them.
First off, is a Memento Mori medallion. I keep this by my bedside while I sleep, and next to my laptop while I work. You can get it as a necklace too, if you’d like to keep it close to your heart. Then, I have the WeCroak app installed on my phone. This little gem – available for iPhone and Android – sends you the most crucial notification you’re going to get on your phone: one reminding you that you are going to die. It does this five times a day. You get a quote about death thrown in for free, but I find those to be of varying quality, and not necessary anyway – the reminder is the key.
You’re not going to live forever; nor are the people who you love. Act accordingly.