Movement 11: Facing Mortality
All that lives is mortal and will die. Death is inevitable and normal and cannot be separated from living. Yet ours is a culture that likes to deny and ignore death, both the prospect of our own personal death and reality of the deaths of nature and animals that we cause through our actions. Denying death, we end up also denying aspects of life. Facing our mortality makes life more precious. Can we live like we know we are dying?
“A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.” —Octavio Paz
“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” ― Carl Sagan
“All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.”― Marcus Aurelius
“My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” —Terry Tempest Williams
i don’t pay attention to the world ending.
it has ended for me many times and began again in the morning.
Exercise One: A Memento Mori
Memento mori translates to “remember you must die”, and it refers to art or objects that can be frequent reminders to us of our own mortality. You can see many examples of different memento mori here: History of Memento Mori (dailystoic.com)
Try using a memento mori in your own daily practice. You can be as simple or as creative as you like. You could purchase a piece of art that reminds you of mortality, or you could sketch a skull and crossbones on a sticky note. Or choose a quote about death or a more subtle symbol, such as an hourglass, if you like. Whatever your symbol or visual reminder is, place it in a spot where you will see it everyday. Encounter the memento mori and let it remind you that life is temporary, and as such is precious.
Exercise Two: Observe Death and Decay
In nature, death and decay are all around us and are a natural part of the cycles and systems of life. On a hike through the woods you might encounter fallen leaves, rotting stumps, possibly even animal bodies. But in our human-centered artificial environments, we usually strive to keep decay well out of sight (unless you count the food going bad in the fridge!). In some spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, there is a meditation on mortality referred to as “corpse contemplation” where you observe a dead body and meditate upon mortality. This is a simple variation on that:
Get some cut flowers and place them in a vase with water. Put them somewhere you will see them everyday. Don’t change the water or do anything to prolong them. Watch and observe as they wilt and decay. Make note of the feelings this brings up for you. Reflect on the inevitable mortality of all life. Keep them and observe them for as long as you can before you dispose of them (preferably to compost so they can complete their decay process).
Exercise Three: Dead for a Day or A Day Off
This exercise, based on an idea by Stephen Levine (A Year to Live by Stephen Levine | Book Excerpt | Spirituality & Practice (spiritualityandpractice.com)), challenges us to imagine the world going on without us in it anymore. It’s a bit similar to a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life, where you catch a glimpse of what life would be like without you. It’s simple enough to do. For one whole day, as you engage in your life, imagine to yourself what would happen to the objects, people, and places around you after you were dead. Your toothbrush? Would it be thrown away? Your clothes? Your home? Your family? Etc. Continue through your whole day, imagining a future where you are dead.
This exercise can be followed up with A Day Fully Alive, where you repeat the process but switch from imagining yourself as dead to visualizing yourself as fully and vibrantly alive. How do you interact with the world around you when you are fully present to the precious life you are living?
Exercise Four: Write Your Own Obituary
If you died today, would you be happy with the life you’ve led and the legacy you leave behind? Use this writing exercise to explore that question: sit down and write a truthful obituary for yourself of your life so far. How would you be remembered? Read it over and ask yourself: am I happy with how I’m living my life? What’s missing from my life? What might I need to do to make my life feel complete?
And then, if you like, you can follow up with a fantasy or dream obituary. Write one for yourself as though you’ve lived your dream life, done the things you most truly want to do, and left the legacy you want to leave behind. What kind of life does that dream obituary describe? How could you live that life?
Exercise Five: Advanced Care Planning
Facing mortality means planning ahead for the inevitability of your own dying and death. Do your doctors and loved ones know how you want to be cared for? Do they know what your wishes are for your remains and how you want to be remembered? Have these conversations now and get your plans in place. An excellent resource for this work is Five Wishes.
Exercise Six: Organize a Community Conversation About Death
Death and dying are often treated as taboo topics in our culture, leaving us unpracticed in talking about death. However, I believe most people need and welcome a chance to confront mortality and grief together and discover how universal this experience really is. People are organizing ways to have this conversation, in a variety of ways. You could organize a Before I Die Project or a Death Café, or create another option of your own invention.
Griefwalker: Griefwalker | Orphan Wisdom
End Game, available on Netflix
- When did you first become aware of death? What experiences have shaped how you view death?
- What are your spiritual, religious, or philosophical beliefs about death? How do these beliefs shape the way you think about and face mortality? How do they shape the way you live your life?
- What, if anything, do you find scary, disturbing, or difficult about facing the fact of mortality and death? How do you address those feelings?
- If you knew you were dying, would you change anything about the way you are living your life? Are you living your one life well? Are you leaving the legacy you want to leave behind?
- How could we, as a society, do a better job at facing our own mortality? Would facing mortality help us face other issues, such as climate change?
Next: Movement Twelve