Be Happier With "Memento Mori": The Meditative Art of Dying & Living Well

September 6, 2022

Chest tight, you stare blankly at your iPhone screen—squinting at the bright blue glow as you scroll through post after post. 

Another monotonous day slipped by—Eat. Work. Sleep. Repeat. Rather than face reality, you use your phone to drown out the thoughts, fears, and anxieties from the land of the living. 

While modern-day herbalists might suggest a cup of peppermint tea, you need not look further than ancient Rome for an unexpected, yet possibly more effective solution to the nightly anxieties instead. 

Can death meditation be the ultimate key to a healthier and happier life? Read on to find out.

The History of Memento Mori

Originally from Latin, memento mori literally translates to the phrase “remember that you must die.”

The phrase is speculated to have originated from the early Roman army, when historians suggest that enslaved individuals accompanying honored generals on victory parades would whisper this phrase to the general to prevent excessive pride.

Whether fact or fiction, this fascination with death acknowledgement as liberation sparked collective thought leadership in ancient Rome and Greece, quickly gaining footing in the Stoic movement through philosophers such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.

Now, Memento Mori is reigniting public fascination—with tech innovators like Steve Jobs referencing Memento Mori as an important tool in their day-to-day decision making processes.

The Buddhist Art of Dying

Beyond Ancient Greek and Roman Culture, Buddhists also incorporate the acknowledgement of death into their routine religious life. 

According to the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies,  maranasati (also known as death awareness) is the meditative practice of recognizing the fleeting nature of one’s existence. Buddha, himself writes, “of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” 

The Natural Human Fear of Death

If it sounds strange for famous philosophers, Buddhists, and tech leaders alike to practice regular meditation on death, you’re not the only one to think this. 

According to a study by Chapman University, nearly one in five polled experience a fear or extreme fear of death. The fear of death is so common, in fact, that English even has a word to define it: thanatophobia.

Ernest Becker, author of “The Denial of Death,” further explains the psychology behind human’s natural fear of death, posited as the Terror Management Theory (TMT). TMT suggests that humans have “a biological predisposition toward self-preservation,” which “spawns the realization that death is inevitable and can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be anticipated or controlled.” This death awareness, without mindfulness, can potentially become debilitating and lead to the obsession with literal or symbolic immortality—either by investing into the spiritual or creating symbolic immortality through wealth and accomplishments.

And yet, for those who regularly practice death meditation, there seems to be less fear and more neutral acceptance, allowing practitioners to lead a fuller life.  

In a Vox interview, maranasti-practitioner, Nikki Mirghafori, noted how the Buddhist practice of maranasti offered a greater recognition of the impermanence of life for her on a daily basis. Philosopher Seneca also noted death meditation as a way of ensuring no regrets, grudges, or desires are left unfinished, stating, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

How to Incorporate Into Your Meditative Practice

From incorporating a physical reminder of the impermanence of life within your living space (such as the tangible writing of memento mori or a memento mori token) to spending five minute each morning practicing gratitude for life, the practice of death meditation can manifest itself in many forms. 

However you choose to practice death meditation, ensure that this reflection on life and death leads to greater perspective, peace, and clarity, rather than fear or debilitation. Death meditation should ultimately be a reminder of what is valuable and good, rather than what is unknown  and uncontrollable.

Another way to incorporate death meditation is as a stress coping mechanism. When life or work feel overwhelming, take a deep breath and reflect on the brevity of life. Remember that this moment is fleeting and that life is more than the momentary stress that exists. Dwell on this and allow the brevity of life to lift you out of this moment, into all moments, relishing in the fact of existence  and life—even when stressors occur.

Why Meditating on Death Matters

In a world that is increasingly chaotic and busy, meditating on death creates perspective and presence into the aspects of life that matter most. Death meditation sees all extra time as a gift, rather than a guarantee, and posits gratitude for life and existence.

Despite its morbid connotation, memento mori is far from depressing and can, instead, allow greater freedom and peace in the reality of life’s fleeting nature.

As you meditate on death and dying, allow this acknowledgement of the impermanence of life as an opportunity to explore the deepest and most meaningful moments in existence—making every moment matter, no matter how big or small.

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Photo: Anton Darius via Unsplash

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.


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