Historically, a memento mori is a skull, usually displayed on the desks of philosophers and saints, as a constant reminder of death and mortality. In Latin it means “to remember you must die”. Think about it, in our daily rituals, the idea of decay is embedded in the incense and candles that burn and die, flower offerings that burst with life and wilt to die.
Today more than ever before, we are obsessed with fatality rates—nations are defined by the number of people who have succumbed to the virus; there are apps at our fingertips to monitor the death tolls in every region of the world—it is quite obvious that we are living under the shade of an ominous cloud. But that cloud, dare I say, may not be death per se, but fear of dying.
We are all afraid of it—every man, woman and child. The process of dying is what scares us, and the imagination of the physical pain that it may entail. For some, the fear can be subliminal, manifesting indirectly in the choices they make about everyday life (eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow you may die). For others, the fear may be psychologically traumatic, colouring the very fabric of life with dread (Thanatophobia or death anxiety). It is the uncertainty that really kills us, not death itself.
So, is death the ultimate negation of happiness? But ask someone who wants to commit suicide and you may be told it is the ultimate release from unhappiness. No matter what the struggles with death, there is one certainty— fear of death is the reason why we don’t contemplate upon it. We do not talk about it in schools or homes. At best, we gloss over it even when poets and philosophers talk about it. As Khalil Gibran, romanticized: “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
It does soften the blow.
The sands of time are always sifting because you and me, are the hourglass of time, and we are truly, in Gibran’s words, ‘life’s longing for itself’. So why are we so afraid to explore death, contemplate it deeply from a spiritual place, allowing us to accept this mortal inevitability, whether it happens now or later, with dignity?
“Eternity. Birth. Death. To understand these, we need to have a life-long commitment to a metaphysical analysis of our self or jivatman. We need to analyze our perceptions and states of consciousness while we are alive. Living with the fear of death is allowing consciousness to fade away without purpose for a higher light that may guide us, when we, the rivers of life empty into the ocean of eternity.”
In an article in Psychology Today, there’s a deeper analysis of the ‘conundrum’ of death. An evolutionary psychologist, Jesse Bering, reminds us, quite playfully of “the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a ‘you’ around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened." This point was made some 2,300 years ago by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote: “Why fear death when we can never perceive it?” The Roman Epicurean philosopher Lucretius later pointed out that our state of non-existence for the eternity of time after our death is the same state as for the eternity of time before our birth.”
Eternity. Birth. Death. To understand these, we need to have a life-long commitment to a metaphysical analysis of our self or jivatman. We need to analyze our perceptions and states of consciousness while we are alive. Living with the fear of death is allowing consciousness to fade away without purpose for a higher light that may guide us, when we, the rivers of life empty into the ocean of eternity.
Eastern philosophy, has given us profound ways of honouring death, not being fearful of it. We are advised to distinguish between dying and death. Living in fear is a continuous state of dying. And death, as beautifully explained in "The Mystery of Death" by Swami Abhedananda, "does not mean destruction or absolute annihilation, but the transformation of our life into its elemental conditions." We go back to nature. This ancient wisdom is the anti-thesis of the haunting imagery (satanic wrath, pitchforks and incinerating fire) that most of us were indoctrinated into.
Buddhism teaches you to meditate on death and impermanence, since it shines laser-sharp focus on our myopic views of life which are inherently transitory. Buddha began his teachings and ended his teachings with complete surrender to death and impermanence. Tibetan Buddhism especially focusses on the inevitability of death, which in turn means, while alive one must not squander the opportunities given to us. And in living mindfully, there will be the gift of mindfulness in death. If you live every day thinking death is uncertain, every moment of life counts.
According to Kadampa Buddhism this is the benefit of contemplating our death: “If we base our life on a realistic awareness of our mortality we shall regard our spiritual development as far more important than the attainments of this world, and we shall view our time in this world principally as an opportunity to cultivate positive minds such as patience, love, compassion and wisdom.”
So how do we, ordinary human beings, not necessarily on a spiritual path attempt to dress this wound of mortality?
In a profound editorial “Living Like a Death Doula” by Alua Arthur in Atmos magazine, aptly titled Flourish/Collapse, Arthur and her organization called Going with Grace, provides end-of-life care, and helps answer a fundamental question that most of us, in our youth, never ask: “What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may die gracefully?”
And here is what Arthur says: “If you are really concerned with living well in integrity, then spend every morning thinking about the fact that you’re going to die—and use that as a foundation from which you make decisions and determine your actions. When I frame everything in the context that I’m going to die, who I am and what my core values come to the forefront. Those core values then inform how I am living my life, and if I am living my life in a way that feels authentic and good for me. Death can make you so much clearer about life.”
We can lessen our fear of dying by living a regret-free life, because as Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”