Memento Mori: Philosophizing our Mortality
Traditionally associated with Renaissance artwork, the term Memento Mori is Latin for “remember that you have to die.” This phrase was used to describe symbolic reminders of mortality such as a skull or an hourglass. These reminders of mortality were not intrinsic in nature but instead described the manner in which death is a universal elephant in the room in the lives of all humans.
Greek philosopher Epicurus once declared that “[death] does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it comes, we no longer exist.” Most would say that this statement is far detached from reality on both scientific and psychological premises. After all, our evolutionary purpose as living things is to survive and reproduce. Likewise, we should have a fear of death because our existence as a living being is the essence of our humanity. This would appear to be the rational argument to make for our fear of death.
Unfortunately, this argument is grounded on terms of our hegemonic boundaries of our understanding as humans. When Epicurus made his declaration on death, he based it in logical reasoning that should persist to this day. When we die, we no long exist; when we no longer exist, we cannot experience the things that make life not worth living or, on the opposite end, worth living for. Thus, when we say we fear death, there is nothing to actually fear because death is nothing from the perspective of the human. Additionally, this irrational fear that we have placed in ourselves precludes any consideration of the only constant in all humans lives: death. Thus, as death is an essential condition of life, our irrational fear of death is in turn a resentment towards life itself.
Epicurus’s argument is an essential starting locus when considering end-of-life issues today. Taken in greater context, consider the societal stigma towards suicide. The commonly held belief on the issue in the United States is that suicide represents the end of choices for those dealing with mental health, economic, or social issues. The fact that people choose suicide, however, is stigmatized because of the personal and societal effects of the choice. Stigma surrounding suicide is based off of our resentment for death and what follows after. It is the fear of the unknown that forces us to reject the termination of our own lives as an acceptable practice both societally and morally. In turn, this moral obligation to survive disavows any possibility for alternative conceptions of the singular relationship of life and death.
The deprivation of the right to suicide is the deprivation of the ultimate expression of free will. The paternalistic sentiment of our world over the individual is symbolic of a social condition that deters us from challenging speculative ideas. This is necessarily a contradiction to our rights to autonomy over oneself and thus, we have placed upon ourselves the burden of resentment towards life itself.