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
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
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
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.