Death is hard on the deceased’s loved ones, and even in these days of advanced medicine the end of life is often astoundingly abrupt. One day you are hale, the next day you are ill, and the day after that you are being laid to rest.
My grandmother passed away Saturday. She was 92 years old, and even though her age and general frailty should have made us all prepared for the worst, it still came as a shock. One week before her passing she was appeared healthy and was playing with her great-grandchildren. She took a sudden downward turn that night, was hospitalized, seemed to rally but then required assistance breathing. Two days later she was taken off life support and died peacefully a few hours later.
The quick transition between normality and coping with loss creates a surreal feeling; the brain is still trying to process the profound and irrevocable change death brings. One of the ways of used by premodern Europeans for preparing people to expect the unexpected vis-a-vis your own death, as well as the inevitable and unpredictable demise of a friend or relation, was the memento mori.
Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you must die”) is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) and related literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character, by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.
One of Tudor England’s most famous artists, the under-recognized genius Hans Holbein the Younger, drew a series of memento mori in the form of the Danse Macabre that were turned into popular woodcuts and prints. The Holbein drawings are meant to remind people that power, riches, youth, education, and even piety are no defense against death.
With the exception of a few subcultures, such as Goths, the West does not depict skulls and other reminders of death on it’s everyday items of wear and household goods anymore. Death, because modern technology and medicine often delays it or fights it back for a time, has been culturally constructed as a nemesis rather than a inevitable and random event we almost no control over. The just world fallacy, the idea that things happen for a reason and the good will be rewarded, also contributes to the modern delusion that death will come only for the elderly or the evil or give you time to prepare.
If we still surrounded ourselves with memento mori, would we better able to acclimatize to loss and the grief that comes with it?