Memento Mori

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The Latin phrase memento mori is a symbolic reminder of the fragility of human life. But you should turn memento mori on it’s head. It’s another way of saying “carpe diem!”–seize the day!

Back on the Appian Way

You’re a badass Roman general, riding your horse back to the capital on a nice brick road. You just defeated some Germanic barbarians in the Black Forest. They were wild, you were disciplined.

As your Legion passes under an aqueduct, some adoring Etruscan citizens shower you with compliments and symbolic objects of affection. All manner of earthly pleasures await you.

You’re the ruling class of classical antiquity. Iron swords, roads, running water…you bask in glory. Does life get better than this?, you ponder. And then your snot-nosed squire whispers, “Memento mori,” in your ear.

This is mostly a true story. During celebratory battle parades in ancient Rome, the honored generals were often accompanied by a slave (not cool) whose sole role was to whisper, “Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!” That last part–remember you must die–translates to memento mori.

However, the point of this ancient Roman tradition wasn’t to cause fear or be morbid. It’s not a downer. It’s motivation, inspiration, and a gentle reminder of what’s coming. It was a big part of Roman Stoicism.

Whether you come to the Best Interest for financial advice or for a random dude’s random thoughts, a little ‘memento mori’ goes a long way.

Memento mori in Christian context

While Romans started it, Christianity spread the usage of memento mori.

Why? For starters, Christianity heavily emphasized heaven, hell, and other death wish ideas. Memento mori acts as a popular reminder of mortality, that all humans end up dead.

I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity is obsessed with death, but let’s talk about the danse macabre for a minute. Many European churches from the middle ages have representations of the Grim Reaper, of dancing bones, of skulls. Why?

The Dance of Death - a memento mori art piece
The Dance of Death (1493)

In part, it’s because death is the one constant that binds us. And our knowledge of the Middle Ages (e.g. the Plague) suggest that death was constantly on the doorstep.

That Christian influence trickled down into art. Countless Golden Age artists used symbolic objects (e.g. skulls, guttering candles) in their portraits. For example, here’s a portrait by Clara Peeters.

Memento mori Dutch art

Just a cat eating a fish, right? While this is a fairly domestic still-life, it’s hinting at a subtle reminder. You might be the cat right now, but soon you’ll be the fish. This type of symbolism was so popular in Dutch Golden Age art that it’s common to refer to a piece simply as a “memento mori.”

Sometimes the memento mori art focused on vanity, because the riches you have in life can’t be taken with you. Other pieces used contemporary (at the time) symbolic objects to hint at your mortality.

For example, Phillipe de Champaigne’s famous Still Life with a Skull portrait is one of these vanitas genre pieces. It shows three symbols: a tulip, a skull, and an hourglass. Can you guess what they represent?

Memento mori around the world

I’m sure I write with a Western bias, but memento mori is far from a purely Western idea. In fact, many cultures around the world share a similar view as the Romans and Christians.

To ponder human life and always remember death is universal human trait.

In Japanese Zen culture, for example, there are similar concepts in samurai ethics. The Hagakure encourages samurai to meditate on death, and the accept the idea that death could happen at anytime, in any way.

Japanese Zen culture also places an emphasis on cherry blossoms and autumn colors. Why? Because these things are most beautiful before their fall.

Other forms of Buddhism have similar concepts. Perhaps the most well-known is are “The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind.” The logical flow of this philosophy is: things are impermanent, the human body is a thing, therefore death is certain, and death itself is beyond our control.

All these ideas–Roman, Christian, Buddhist–share some depressing aspects. But it is what it is. You can either get depressed or you can get motivated.

Actual mementos

Another memento mori definition from the Oxford English Dictionary is that of an actual memento. That is, a small object acting as a physical reminder of death.

Maybe it’s a little statue of Caesar or a vial of volcanic ash from Pompeii. Either way, this type of memento mori is a small keepsake or souvenir that you might hold in your pocket or on a keychain.

Some people keep pictures of their kids on their desk. Memento kiddo. Others opt for a slightly different kind of reminder.

Et tu, reader?

What can you do? How should the idea of memento mori impact your life?

For me, the first answer is just ponder. Think about death. Consider it seriously, and live life with realistic expectations. Eat, drink, and be merry.

As Ray Dalio suggests in his recent book Principles, one principle leading to success in life is hyperrealism. In Dalio’s opinion, having realistic views of the world sets the stage for our ability to succeed within it.

I’ve used this metaphor before. Remember the kid in high school who absolutely could not sing or dance, but thought he’d be the next Michael Jackson? While dreams are important, this high school kid is, perhaps, being unrealistic. It only sets the stage for failure, let downs, frustration.

Dalio looks at life like a great machine (machina, if anyone’s here for more Latin, less philosophy). And just like any machine, there are rules that govern it and cause-effect relationships that describe this life.

Imagine life like it’s a car. There’s gravity and friction and air resistance. If you touch this pedal, you go faster. If you turn that dial, the radio gets loud. Understanding this machine realistically is key for success.

If you view your Honda Civic like a Lamborghini, you’ll race and be disappointed. If you view it like a truck, you’ll tow a camper and break your car. Viewing the machine in unrealistic terms leads to bad outcomes.

The realistic view of life is: it can be great, it can be tough, but one day it’ll be 100% over. There’s no point in excluding this fact from your realistic worldview. To push death aside, or to live in constant fear of it, is a form of the Honda/Lamborghini complex.

Or as the Romans realized: beat up all the Etruscan barbarians you want, but memento mori is still there.

Financial mementos

Are you viewing your bank account like a Lamborghini when it’s actually a Honda Civic? It’s important to be realistic in your finances—financial mistakes can lead to regret on your deathbed—but that’s not to only thing that memento mori makes me consider.

I often discuss ideas like saving, budgeting, and investing. You know, topics predicated on having a pulse.

So, one of the first things that ‘memento mori’ makes me think of is balance. It’s good to save and invest and budget, but only insofar as you plan on enjoying the journey at some point. Set financial goals for yourself, but make sure you like what you’re doing day-to-day.

And then there are some fairly tangible actions you can from with the reminder of death.

For example, owning life insurance is a great idea if there are others (spouses, children) who depend on you for their resources. A little premium can go a long way. To ignore to possibility of death can be downright irresponsible.

Similarly, you might need a will. A will is a legal document that establishes what happens to your assets when you die. With all the saving you’re doing, you might have a lot of assets to disperse. Perhaps you’re giving something to your family, to your neighbor, or to the local food kitchen. A will establishes how that occurs.

Social thoughts

The data around death can be a little sobering. But again, my take on it is: it’s unavoidable! To quote the great Ellis ‘Red’ Redding from Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, “Either get busy living, or get busy dying.” The people in your life are wonderful, but finite. So, get busy living before it’s too late.

If I take a random assortment of 30 people from age 25 to 55, there’s roughly a 7% chance that one of them will die this year, and about a 50% chance that at least one will die in the next 10 years. If I extend that age range from 25 to 85, there’s a 40% chance one will pass away this year, and greater than 90% chance that one will die in the next 5 years.

Personally, I can think of 30 people pretty quickly. And the more people you know the “worse” it gets i.e. the more likely someone you know might die.

What to do? No friends = no mourning, right?!

To each their own, but I want to face these odds head on. I want to celebrate the good things in life, and to enjoy the people around me. I want to share knowledge with the hopes that other people benefit. One of my goals is to plant trees, even those that might not shade me. It feels like the right thing to do.

Blogus postem memento mori

Just like a summary is part of a article, death is a part of life. Do not cry when I am gone, for I will return next Friday with some spicy new thoughts. Until then, carpe diem! And memento mori!

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About Jesse Cramer

I’m Jesse. I’m an engineer, a new owner of an old home, and an avid reader/writer. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@BestInterest_JC) or on Reddit (u/BestInterestDotBlog). Many of my posts have been directly influenced by my readers. It’s the most fun part of writing this blog. And as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest.
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19 thoughts on “Memento Mori

  1. Ancient Chinese Proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

    Contemporary American Proverb says, “Trees are on sale at your local nursery in late Fall.”

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