Death is useful. The knowledge of our own end—and the end of all things—can be a catalyst for action. Writers like to make use of everything. Triumphs and setbacks, blows and banalities—almost all of the detritus of life can be used to make art. Everything is fertilizer and furniture for story. Even death. Maybe, especially death. If we let it help us to live.
The patterns and rituals of the day tend to sweep us along, and life, so much of the time, feels ordinary or even dull. To remind us that our lives are not endless even when they feel like it, we have the memento mori—a symbol that impels us to face death, to acknowledge and accept our mortality. From the Latin, memento mori literally means remember that you must die. Often represented as a skull, the memento mori can be a rendering of anything ephemeral; any image or object that evokes the passage of time can serve the same purpose: a candle, a flower, a sunset, an hourglass.
The origin of the memento mori has been traced back to ancient Rome. When a triumphant general embarked on a parade of victory, so the story goes, a slave would accompany him all the while whispering, memento mori, remember that you must die. A preventative measure, this was meant to guard against excessive pride so the victorious leader would not begin to believe that he was a god. In the centuries since, zealots and visionaries have used the memento mori, incorporating images of death into their art and sacred spaces, often as a hedge against vanity, greed, or idleness. (For a more thorough treatment of this history, visit here.)
Modern usage of the memento mori is more typically as a driver for action, a gentle reminder that we have a fixed number of minutes to finish a few things while we are here. “Remember, you must die,” then, is only half of the message. The unspoken conclusion, it could be argued, is “…so, remember to live.” In this light, knowledge of our mortality becomes a crowbar, or a portal into a better life. Sam Harris, in a bittersweet meditation entitled “The Last Time You’ll Do Something,” asserts that “everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life.”
Besides the pen, the memento mori may then be the most transformative and useful tool that a writer can have, serving as a marker for our ultimate deadline—the day we run out of time entirely. Since a death date can’t be marked on a calendar for most of us, the memento mori teaches that death looms in every minute. Every day can and could be our last. So, if there’s something you’d like to try, do, make, write, or be…don’t wait.
Perhaps, as a sensitive and creative person, you are already acutely aware, thanks very much, of the impending doom and gloom. Maybe death is a constant obsession or fear. Maybe every time you face a Boggart, like Molly Weasley, you see a parade of your most cherished loved ones in deep peril. I get it. On a weekly basis, I struggle through that fear of loss, that terror of the unknown. The what-if, wide-awake-at-3-am panic usually leads to a deep sense of loneliness for me, and also inaction. Wheel spinning. Maybe the practice of the memento mori offers an alternative approach. Maybe it asks that we step back and view death from a different angle, one a bit more removed from the harrowing fear that the thought of death usually provokes.
For one, I think the memento mori connects us all as living things. The images themselves, the skull and the hourglass, point to the universal. We are the same at the bone level. We are all at the mercy of time. In that sense, we are not alone. Also, the memento mori is not meant to be a siren, screaming emergency, causing our hearts to bound. It’s more stately than that, a cordial invitation, of sorts, to an inevitable event that we’ll all attend at some point. We are invited to prepare and respond—to channel our gnawing fear into useful action—to survey and then to narrow in on what is most important. To work toward the priority we’ve assigned in our lives and to infuse the time we have with deep meaning and purpose.
Love it or not, the season of the skull is upon us. Halloween looms and visions of skeletons will dance before our eyes. Perhaps this year they can escort us back to the work we most want to do.
Phoebe Bridgers says (sings) it well…
“Baby, it’s Halloween
There’s a last time for everything
Oh, come on, man
We can be anything…”
…don’t miss the full song and video, featuring lovely vintage Halloween costumes, even a skeleton or two.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.