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You Must Stare This Scary Fact in the Face

You Must Stare This Scary Fact in the Face

If you have ever looked at much ancient or medieval art, you’ll notice something:

Death is everywhere.

The French painter Philippe de Champaigne’s famous “

Still Life with a Skull
,” which shows the three essentials of existence—the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). 

The beautiful anonymous German engraving from 1635 that features

a standing, smiling skeleton aiming a crossbow


towering wall of hundreds of smiling skulls
unearthed at the ruins of the Great Temple in the Aztec capital.

The famous

cadaver tombs
of Europe.


plastered Jericho skulls
filled with soil and decorated with seashells from some 9,500 years ago.

There’s even

a church in Rome made almost entirely out of the bones
of the dead priests that have worked there over the centuries. 

And this is a trend that has continued up through the modern era. One of Vincent van Gogh’s earliest works is “

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
.” There is even an early—though mostly forgotten—Walt Disney cartoon called “
Silly Symphony
” which is five minutes of dancing skeletons doing also sorts of funny but macabre things. And in 2007, an artist in Richmond, Virginia named
Noah Scalin who spent an entire year making a “skull-a-day”
out of anything he could get his hands on.

Why is death so common in art? 

It’s because death is common in life. And it was once even more common. 

Take someone like

Marcus Aurelius
. His father died when he was just a boy. His grandparents shortly after. He lost his adopted father and cherished mentor. Of his children, eight died before he did. His 15-year reign was flooded with wars abroad and plagues at home. 

Even his last words. In 180 CE,

having led Rome through the worst of the Antonine Plague
, which killed more than 10 million people, Marcus began to show symptoms of the disease. By his doctors’ diagnosis, he had only a few days to live. He sent for his five most-trusted friends to plan for his succession and to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Bereft with grief, these advisors were almost too pained to focus. “Marcus reproached them for taking such an unphilosophical attitude,”
biographer Frank McLynn writes
. “They should instead be thinking about the implications of the Antonine plague and pondering death in general.”

“Weep not for me,” began Marcus’s famous last words, “think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”

Memento Mori
. Remember we are mortal. 

It’s a constant theme in art because it’s a fact that’s as easy to forget as it is scary to think about. It’s unpleasant. And besides… given all our modern advancements in technology, isn’t it a little fatalistic? Isn’t there a chance we may live forever?

There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to wake us up from our silly fantasies. 

Less than two months after the Chair of the 7th District of the New York City Council Health Committee

poked fun at the “#coronavirus scare,”
the now sobered Mark Levine announced the potential need for temporary graves in public parks. Parks, hospital ships, refrigerated trucks, and other “makeshift morgues” filled faster than the hospitals did and by the end of April, New York City
“ran out of space”
for its dead. 

Maybe we all should have been a little more prepared, a little stronger and tougher… a little less convinced that we had escaped the fate of those that lived long ago. 

They certainly tried to warn us, in their writing and by example. 

Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Michelangelo said, “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.” The essayist Michel de Montaigne was fond of the ancient Egyptian custom where during times of festivities, a skeleton would be brought out with people cheering “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.” Shakespeare wrote, “Every third thought should be my grave.” Mozart said, “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.” And Tolstoy said, “If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different.”

That’s over 3,000 years of wisdom on the same theme… a theme which predated and continued long after each of them… and will continue after us as well. 

For most of history, memento mori was more than “art,” it was a practice. Desks were staged with skulls to remind people of the urgency of life. On their walls hung paintings of skeletons, hour glasses, extinguished candles, wilting tulips. In their pockets they carried memento mori medallions and watch keys. It “wasn’t just a generalized response to mortality,” says Elizabeth Welch, an art curator at the Blanton Museum, “but instead specifically a performative social leveling that could be used by Late Medieval Christians to think about mortality and the inevitability of physical decay.” 

The physical manifestation of a memento mori helped our ancestors process the pain that followed them around each day. The bodies on the streets and battlefields didn’t create panic, but priority, humility, urgency, appreciation. 

I’ve talked about my own Memento Mori,

a two-sided coin
, before. On the front it has a rendering of Champaigne’s Still Life with a Skull painting. On the back, it has
Marcus Aurelius’s quote
: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Except I cut off the last part—as a reminder that there isn’t even time to go through the whole quote. 

But my real memento mori practice begins when I brush my teeth in the morning and when I brush them before bed in the evening. There, propped under my bathroom mirror, I have a chunk of an old Victorian tombstone. How it left that cemetery and came to be for sale, I don’t know and don’t want to know. 

But I know that it sobers me and sets me right each time I look at it. Because the piece had just one word on it. It says, “Dad.”

Somebody who so identified with that word they wanted it on their tombstone; who lived and died and whose gravestone eventually even fell into disrepair. Who were they? How did they pass? Are they missed? Were they famous? It doesn’t matter. They are gone now. Almost certainly, they were gone too soon. They left behind a family. They will never walk or speak or love or cry again. 

And so it will go for me. And so it will go for you. 

I said before that this theme in art continues. One of the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s most interesting pieces

features her lying on her back, completely nude
, mimicking those ancient cadaver tombs. Laid on top of her in the exact same position is a female skeleton, representing… “the last mirror we will all face.” It is a beautiful, haunting reminder of the “before and after” that every single living body ultimately experiences. Marina’s piece has echoes of the Latin expression Hodie mihi, cras tibi. The skeleton is saying to the artist, “Today it’s me, tomorrow it’s you,”

We must remember, especially now, that life is ephemeral, that life is finite, that life is fragile. This should humble us… but also empower us. 

It should put everything in perspective. When my son comes to the stairs and calls me to come play, I have no problem stopping because it could be the last time that he asks me. When I think about my work and phoning it in today I think about how lucky I am to have today. So I try to live—not just during a pandemic—with the awareness that I may not be spared. That a virus has no mercy. That it does not care about what I’ve built or who I am important to. 

It doesn’t care about any of us. Death is indifferent, and it is ruthlessly, inevitably victorious. 

That was the purpose of the once ever-prevalent memento mori art—to remind people that death is ever-present. 

This could be your last day on this planet. As wonderful as it would be if there was no such thing as death, we have to use death as a tool, we have to use it as a spur to move us forward, we have to use it as a reminder of what’s truly important and we have to be made better for the fact that we don’t know how much time we have. We never do. And we never will.

Memento Mori. 


Key Ideas

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Thinking about the end of our lives

Thinking about the end of our lives

Death is a timeless subject: no matter what is currently happening, death is constantly present in our mind: whether for fear of not losing someone we love or for fear of not dying ourselves.

However, people tend to think more about this topic whenever tragic events happen in their lives or when the worldwide situation gets scarier overall.




Remember death so you can cherish life

From Moses to Tolstov, our ancestors used to be very much focused on the subject of death.

This is mostly because understanding death means actually understanding life: in order to make the most of our time spent on earth, we must not forget that we will all eventually die.



Memento mori art

The fact of cherishing the present time and of making the most of what we still have left to live should be the motto of our lives.

The truth is that death does not wait for us to be ready to go, it does not ask and it does not care. So, while you are still here, you might as well enjoy your life as much as you can.




John Dewey

"We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience."

John Dewey

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  • Research reveals that people who journal have a 25% increase in performance when compared to people who do not journal.
  • Journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events.
  • Journaling improves communication skills. Writing reflects clear thinking, and in turn, clear communication.
  • Journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
  • Reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events.

The Goals of Keeping A Journal

  • You can bring your problems to a journal. Journaling is you figuring things out and clearing your head.
  • Leave your destructive thoughts in your journal. We all carry around destructive thoughts about the things that went wrong. Instead of holding our thoughts in our head, we can put it down on paper.
  • Keep a journal for your grandchildren. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.
  • Journal for your future self. Produce something that you can look back on and learn from.

Forget all the rules others impose about a journal. Do what works for you.

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There is a lot of stuff available for us to do that makes us feel better instantly. Watching TV, going to the beach, drinking alcohol, smoking, and almost every other activity that seems pleasurable to us, giving us temporary pleasure in a jiffy. When we keep doing that, the long term effects are bad, and we feel older, weaker, sicker, while not having any achievement in our lives.

This is a natural process of a slow movement towards disorder, is also the second law of thermodynamics, called Entropy.

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