Memento Mori: A morbid practice or exercise in humility?

Modern applications of an ancient stoic practice.

Senote Keriakes
3 min readMay 19, 2022
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

One of the principle tenets of stoicism is that of /memento mori/: the remembrance of the death. The stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus constantly made reference to this concept throughout their work. They believed that through the constant remembrance of one’s own morality and inevitable death, a more fulfilling life is lived, devoid of distractions, slothfulness, meaningless distractions, or pride.

Yet, in our 21st century understanding of death and suffering, the mere mention of death conjures up feelings of uneasiness and grief. Reference to death and mortality is often deemed macabre, and people will try to protect themselves and those they love from the news of somebody’s passing. It is not uncommon for parents to lie to their children following the death of a grandparent, telling them that ‘grandpa is away on holiday’. Yet, despite advances in science, medicine and standard of living, death remains an inevitability for all humans. Why then, must something which we ALL experience need to be a constant need for grief and sadness. Perhaps we may benefit in our day-to-day life if we begin to view death in a different light.

Marcus Aurelius, who ruled Rome as the last of the so-called ‘five good emperors’, was known for his habit of daily journalling, a habit which he practiced throughout the entirety of his life, and well into his tenure as Emperor of Rome. His memoirs are immortalised as ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’. He speaks greatly of the remembrance of death as a tool with which we can equip ourselves against procrastination and meaningless distraction.

Marcus Aurelius famously writes “Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it”. The clever tricolon here ultimately serves as a call to arms, where Marcus calls on himself to rise above procrastination and time wasting to fulfil his duties as an emperor. The second clause: “time: how brief and fleeting your allotment of it” is a nudge to make use of the time which is available before Marcus meets his inevitable death.

Furthermore, through the remembrance of death, we are reminded of our true significance (or lack thereof), and are inoculated against pride and vainglory.

Epictetus describes human life as being “a little wisp of soul carrying a corpse”. The disdain with which Epictetus describes life positions us to view life and death from a different angle, one which doesn’t inflate our ego or underscore our own importance. In essence, the remembrance of death allows us to take a step back and stop taking ourselves too seriously!

“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” — Marcus Aurelius

Death of a loved one will always be considered a tragic event, and their absence will cause us to experience grief and sadness. Yet, when thinking of our own death through the practice of Memento Mori, let’s avoid thinking of death as a tragic occurence which awaits us. Instead, death is part of the natural process of life. Just as every good movie has an ending, so too do our lives have an inevitable ending. We cannot change our mortality or alter the time of our death, but we can seize the limited time which we have at our disposal so that when the time comes, we don’t look back with regret!

“Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age.” — Marcus Aurelius



Senote Keriakes

Notes on philosophy, history and religion. I write to share my point of view and reinforce the concepts that I learn, enjoy:)