I love skulls.
I think they are beautiful. A little morbid sure, but beautiful. Over the years, I have accumulated a few skull-related paraphernalia. I had this really nice skull vase that sat on the table in my living room to hold odds and ends. I have a skull decanter and a skull cup. I wear a bracelet with a skull as its center piece. I keep skulls around me as a reminder of death…and as an invitation to life. In this, I follow a long standing philosophic, religious and artistic tradition spanning thousands of years.
Last week, I joined my extended family to lay my late uncle to rest. It was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was a sad thing to say goodbye to one of our own. We mourned a life cut abruptly and unexpectedly short. On the other hand, it was great to see cousins, uncles and aunts I had not seen in so long and to celebrate a life that touched so many. The entire experience was a mix of excitement, celebration, grieving and sombre reflection.
Of course, funerals are a poignant time to think about our mortality.
Remember you must die.
This seemingly haunting, but inspiring phrase has a rich history, evolving through many forms of practice and interpretation in literature, art, fashion, and even current popular culture. To this day, many people keep Memento Mori coins or similar physical totems as reminders of the ever-present nature of death.
For the stoics, memento mori was a key meditation device. A reminder that our time on earth in finite, and this thing called life is fragile, and precious. Most times we don’t think about death. We are too preoccupied with the business of living to stop and ponder something so morbid, so depressing. But such is the fate of all of us. That we are born, and one day, we will die. It is the one constant in a world full of flux.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In art, the genre ‘Danse Macabre’ or the ‘Dance of death’ grew in the late Middle Ages, a time when the Black Death decimated a third of Europe’s population. Paintings included kings, peasants, young and old dancing with the grim reaper or with skeletons, to convey that death comes for everyone. ‘Vanitas art’ arose with Dutch Golden Age artists, emphasizing the emptiness and futility of earthly items. Their still art paintings depicted compositions of skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, time pieces to remind observers that time is relentless, and death is inevitable.
It is said that a lot of our neuroses, our fears and frantic scrambling, stem from our inability to cope with our innate mortality and limitations. We do a lot of things to avoid our death. We seek comfort in things, and pleasures, grasping for security, to stave off facing our end. With all our creature comforts and amenities, we pretend we have all the time in the world, and that we will live forever.
This is understandable, the fear of death is a tough burden to bear. Man lives in constant tension, peering into the sublime and eternal on one hand, and yet severely limited by time, and the fleeting nature of life. Easier to just live and be distracted and try not to think about it for as long as you can.
Yet we must die.
What if we embrace death? Not as something morbid and to be feared, but as something to be inspired by. The necessary end that is death makes the time we are alive that more precious. In the larger scheme of things, none of the things we do will matter much. No matter how much we achieve or accumulate, we will die. Our time will pass, our names will be forgotten, our monuments will wash away with the sands of time. But right now, in our experience, in our lives, the things we do, do matter. How we live, matters. Our actions reverberate across the universe. It’s a paradox.
Steve Jobs called death, probably the greatest invention of life. Life begins, life ends. And it does both all the time. If it didn’t, life would be stagnant, not going anywhere. But we are born, we grow into our prime, and then we die. As we leave, others come to replace us, to do it all over again, to do it differently, to tear down what was done before and create anew. The cycle of births and deaths allow us to continue as a people, as a species, ever present, ever reinventing, ever dying, ever renewed. It is a beautiful thing. Embracing this truth brings release.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
If we must die. then perhaps life, is just learning how to die well. Can we live in a way that honours the people we were made to be? Can our short time be used to mean something more than just our happiness and pleasure? Can we live with a sense of urgency, not putting off our great work to a day that may never come, but tackling it right now, today? Can we live in such a way, that after we are gone, we still live on, in the hearts and minds of the people we touch, and the marks we make in the world?
If we must die. Perhaps we can spend less time and energy trying to impress others, taking on things that do not serve us. Perhaps we cannot be so swayed by the crowd. Perhaps we can allow our truest selves to unfold. Perhaps we can truly value our time, and not waste another second. Perhaps we can pursue our dreams, and goals. Perhaps we can embrace purpose. Perhaps we can unleash our true potential.
If we must die, then we must live. With urgency. We must think of how we want to exit, and what we want those we leave behind to say and feel about us when we are no longer here. If we must die, then we must also savour life, making sure to enjoy it, to live in the moments, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not being preoccupied with worries and fears. Knowing that the forward march of time is relentless, we can live so we get to the end with no regrets, having truly lived, having fought the good fight, having left everything on life’s stage.
“On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye. If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind… The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. – Dudjom Lingpa