I just put a memento mori app on my phone. For those of you who did not take four years of Latin in high school, which is no doubt most of you who are not close personal friends with Methuselah, memento mori means remember you are mortal, — that is, remember that, like Monty Python’s infamous parrot, you are going to be bloody well deceased some day, kick it, shuffle off this mortal coil, end up stone cold dead.
In ancient Rome when a successful general returned to the City after a conquering spree in foreign parts, (there were many of those) they were sometimes given victory parades so the citizenry could enjoy the spectacle of marching men, scantily-clad slaves in chains and all sorts of miscellaneous loot on display. The Senate, mindful that successful generals were prone to get big-headed and could possibly pose a danger to the Republic decreed that during the parade a man would march beside old general Sempronius Gracchus, yelling ‘memento mori’ into his ear to counterbalance possible hubris (excessive pride). This unfortunately stopped working when Julius Caesar became tone deaf.
Digitally Disrupting My Metaphorical Parade
At any rate, this app is designed to pop up at random intervals during the day and remind me that I’m going to die while throwing pithy death-related quotations at me. Why, you might ask, would I do this – have I given in to my inner morbidity, am I reading too much German philosophy, am I joining random funeral processions like Ishmael in Moby Dick – no, I am perfectly able to get through my day with these reminders without falling on my metaphorical sword, in fact I quite like being elbowed in the ribs this way five times a day.
We all know we are going to die right? Well ….. according to the great cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, our consciousness hits the denial button faster than Donald fires cabinet members and many of our most potent social habits and cultural constructs are aiding and abetting this denial. We have our top-of-the market immortality systems whether it be merging with the cosmic oneness in the East or sailing off with Jesus in the West, we have our group/tribe/family identification which focuses us on collective immortality, and we have what I will call our dailyness, our focus on getting through it, our work, our obligations, our material acquisitioning, our numerous strivings to do well, be well, have fun, make a difference, be remembered. Who has time to think about dying and what good would it do? We laugh when Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to live on through my work; I want to live on by not dying;” but we ignore the angst under the joke.
I would suggest that in our secular age this busy-bee-ness, the drive for material acquisition and a certain amount of auto-anesthesia (which can range from nasty drug habits to watching ‘Bowling for Dollars‘ from the comfort of your Lazy-Boy for five hours at a time) are the chief strategies we use with great effectiveness to avoid looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing the guy in a black bathrobe riding a pale horse and carrying a sickle. Well damn it all you say, the days are there, they present themselves inexorably with each sunrise, you gotta get through ‘em as successfully as you can by standards and values you set for yourself. The problem is everydayness can so easily turn into a kind of somnambulism — a sleep-walking through life, what existentialists call living inauthentically.
Through Death -- Life
Here is where memento mori can be very useful. The notoriously opaque and abstract German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (trying to read him is in itself a near-death experience) could very occasionally be quite clear. He says:
We are beings in linear time and death-awareness is an inescapable corollary of this essential human fact. This awareness is a counter-weight we can throw into the scale to balance all those cultural and psychological tendencies that would have us live with blinders on, and it can spur us to set priorities and make choices that are authentic and freely our own.
So on those days when I am prone to sleep-walk my day, binge watch Netflix, stare at mind-numbing top-ten lists on YouTube, and worry about carpet lint, up on phone pops my memento mori, five times a day, reminding me that the clock is ticking.
I quite like it.