Memento Mori; On Remembering Death One time in the evening I was walking along the beach near our home. I went out around the rocky corner of some cliffs; it's a place most people don't go. The rocks are painful to step on for most, but my feet have been calloused against beach rocks for years now. As I rounded the corner, I noticed the mottled grey-and-brown corpses of seals laid out at low tide. They must have been injured by a boat and washed ashore. Their perfectly white bones were picked clean in places by seagulls; but the faces of these animals were still intact, smoothed over like sleeping infants. Like many others before me, I have learned a little something of death. But of all the funerals and processions I've attended, none of them were immediate friends or family; so my idea of humans passing away is fairly detached. I've looked at faces in coffins or watched mounds of dirt pile onto wooden boxes and have thought very little about whoever was inside. I was once asked to give a speech at the funeral of my great grandfather – but when it came time to go up to the microphone, there wasn't much I could say. “He was a good man,” I told the audience. But I had barely known him. It felt hollow. When my mother took the stand to speak, she was a good picture of human grief: a wrinkled-up face in tears. A small, puckered mouth with eyes squeezed shut, leaking. It might sound odd, but the encounter with the seals was my first experience with fresh death. I sat on the rocks for hours as the night grew dark, keeping the corpses of the seals company. Above me by the lighthouse, the sounds of the fog horns picked up, making their lonely, mournful noises. I thought that that must be what seal spirits sounded like – calling to each other in the night. People are so terrified of dying – or of death – that it's a universal phobia. It's so difficult even to imagine the future, but to think one step further-- about being dead, I mean-- seems nearly impossible to me. Humanity is constantly seeking out new ways to extend our lifespan, or to create something physical that lives on after us in death – buildings or train stations or universities or public monuments – or books or movies or plays, even. Artificially extending our lifespan through our vicarious creations is one of the few ways we can comfort ourselves on our deathbeds. Oftentimes, people will try to imagine their friends' or family's reaction after their death; it's the subject of countless television episodes. Will anyone miss me? they wonder. Ten years after I'm dead, will there still be flowers on my grave? When I read Faulkner in high school, for the first time I found a character that had captured the reason people are so terrified of death: Addie Bundren. “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time,” Faulkner wrote. Then, soon after, came Shakespeare in Macbeth, weighing in his own two cents: “all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” That's the truth of it. There is this horrible realization that dawns upon most humans at some point: that life itself has no meaning, and that death is... equally hollow. That there really is nothing after the end of it – no nice, pearly gates and no choir of angels. That there is no spirit. No reincarnation. No continuation. You will die, and the universe will continue to spin upon its axis. I don't mind death, though. Death humbles us. When Roman generals celebrated a victory, they would ride through the streets of the city in their chariot with a slave at their side. The slave would wait until the revels had started, and then was ordered to whisper a phrase: “memento mori.” Remember you will die. Though the good times roll now, they-- as all good things-- must come to an end. What does bother me instead is the grandiosity that is given to death. It seems to me as though every person – no matter who they were or what they did – gets the grand fanfare when they die. There was a kid at my high school who was, to put it lightly, a huge dick. He was caught several times dealing on school grounds, and was expelled for a year before returning to our school. He used to antagonize anyone lesser than him, which was everyone; he and his cronies would beat around the orchestra kids for fun or throw milk cartons at random students during lunch hour. He was immensely racist against the school's Arab and Persian population, notoriously shouting slurs in the hallways. He came from money, and every afternoon would rev out of the parking lot in his black Camaro, cutting the rest of us out of line. Of course, this kid soon died of an overdose at a rave. It wasn't a tragic death; he'd gladly downed enough ecstasy to kill a horse and then over-saturated himself with water-- a common means of accidental overdose on the rave scene. It causes pressure on the brain stem, inducing death quickly. Immediately the banners flew. “Rest in peace,” they read. “You are forever loved.” People lit candles and held flower processions. Facebook groups were created to commemorate his memory. At the school memorial, students talked about his “unflagging kindness” and his desire to treat all human beings well. On the facebook event wall they threw around words like “giving” and “loving” and “selfless.” It was all empty; meaningless. Of course – to die young is tragic in itself. I did not celebrate this student's death. I was merely angered by the response of the community: to pin good, Christlike qualities on someone who was more or less a burden on society and nothing more. If it is bad to feel nothing when someone dies, isn't it worse to remember them as someone other than who they really were? Isn't it more of a detriment to the person's memory to say, “they were truly kind to everyone they met” when the person was very clearly not? There are reasons why we do this, of course. That fear of death leaves us terrified that once we are gone, people will dredge up our flaws. “Did you know he cheated on his wife?” they might whisper. Or perhaps the dead man's daughter might come to the stand at his funeral, saying, “he was a worthless father – I never loved him.” And of course, the dead man could not defend himself. To speak ill of the dead is to shoot a bound man; he cannot fight back. But I don't feel that way. when I die, I will want the things people say to me to have been deserved. If someone takes the stand at my wake and says, “she was horrible and I hated her”-- well, that would be tolerable. But if they instead say of me, “she was perfect in every way – a true angel”... I can think of nothing worse. That is to deny that I was human, that I was imperfect, and that my flaws were as much a part of my character as my successes. So here is the heart of it, I guess: People desperately want to be remembered. To be forgotten is a terrible thing. That is likely why they try so hard to remember the newly-dead in such a positive light. I want one step further: I want to be remembered correctly. I guess I won't know whether this really happens, because-- of course-- I'll be dead; but it's a nice concept to think about, at least. I don't fear death. I used to. But when I sat with the seals, listening to their souls pass away in the darkness, I thought of myself passing on in that way – lost in the vast emptiness of a dimension no human eyes have ever seen. It seemed calm; there is nothing of the terror and constant action that life forces upon us. Death is peaceful. Ultimately, preserving our memory is for the benefit of the living – not for our own peace of mind. I don't know if there will still be flowers on my grave ten years after I am gone. In all likelihood, there probably won't be. I am no celebrity. I have not made much of a mark on the world. In fact, Justin Bieber's new haircut has received more media attention than my entire life probably will. Surprisingly, I'm satisfied with that. If I am remembered correctly by even one person, it will be worthwhile – because my real memory will have been preserved, rather than that of a shallow doppelganger.
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