To be mindful of death is a common precept in all religious and consciousness traditions from East to West through the centuries. In various Buddhist teachings monks, while gazing upon a dead body or skeleton, are to reflect that “my body is no different than the one I behold.” In fact, it is said that some teachers told their students that if they meditated without awareness of their own mortality, the effort would bear little fruit.
Socrates manner of meeting his own death as recounted by Plato ought to be the ideal toward which a philosopher aspires. Indeed, Socrates and later the Stoics put the dispassionate contemplation of one’s own death as a means of achieving freedom from fear and greater self-control. Remember these were people for whom death from battle, pestilence, or accident was much more likely than in our own run time and place.
Christians used the phrase memento mori, or “remember you must die,” as a means to help both the pious and more ordinary folk turn their attention away from the vanities of this world toward the greater and eternal rewards or punishment of the next. With the arrival of the plague, the imminence and pervasiveness of death could not be ignored. Increasingly, still life paintings included a reminder of the brevity of life with an image of a newly shot hare or pheasant among living fruit or plants.
In Islam, the ’remembrance of death’ is an important injunction to be heeded among the many tempting pleasures of life. The Mexican Day of the Dead is a compound of Catholic and indigenous ritual and imagery. Recall Don Juan’s teaching to Carlos that “Death is our eternal companion” and helps us “drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them. “
Why do I bring that up here? Well, first we watched the movie “Youth,” with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as guests at a luxurious Swiss spa. We thought it a delightful, somewhat Felliniesque exposition on aging despite its title. There are moments of singular beauty and individuality opposed to the inevitability and uniformity of death.
Secondly, in our time and place most of us are not well situated to view skeletons, skulls, and the dead. But we with chronic illness are “better off” than most to contemplate our falling apart. Illness, rather than “Death” is our most visible companion. But unless we live in a state of denial, of “mortality salience,” a fancy term for the recognition of our inevitable death, it’s harder to ignore it. I’m unlikely to die from multiple sclerosis sooner than the “healthy aged.” But I am at greater risk for a UTI and, if resistant to antibiotics, that could kill me.
I don’t need ashes on my forehead as a “dust to dust” reminder. A wheelchair and the everyday reminders of what I must do to stay clean and healthy are enough.