Memento Mori

The last straw

And so it appears that there is a bit more to being human than it seems at first glance. Amongst the cheery facts we have established so far are that we have no free will, our brains are operating on outdated software and our minds have a tendency to tell us inaccurate stories.

There’s more bad news: Every living person on the planet is going to die.

Not today of course, at least not for most of us. But within the next 120 or so years, every single person alive today will be gone.

This may be shocking news to some of us. We accept that people in general die. But for most of our lives, we don’t really, truly accept that it’s going to happen to us too.

Even as you read this, death probably feels like a faraway, vague thing, like the planet Venus. We know it’s there, but it doesn’t seem all that real or relevant. And yet today alone an average of 160,000 people will die.

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that ‘Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.’ Over time, creative tax accountants and corporate lawyers have proved him wrong on half of his thesis, but he was certainly spot on about the other half. Death is a certainty. As soon as we are conceived, we are already on our journey towards the other side.

Despite the obvious inevitability of death, this is an excruciatingly unpleasant topic to think about for many. A 2014 survey in Britain discovered that 8 in 10 people are uncomfortable talking about death, and only a third have written a will.

Instinctively we don't want to contemplate dying, which is perhaps why we spend most of our lives acting as if we won't.

Thinking about death is sort of like thinking about the end of a wonderful long holiday. You vaguely know it’s coming, but you really, really don’t want to acknowledge it.

Yet there is nothing actually morbid about death in itself. It is a fundamental and necessary part of the human experience. Death gives life meaning.

Instead of avoiding the unavoidable, we can look death straight in the depths of its eye sockets and make use of it. Rather than being something that prevents us from living, death can be something that enables us to truly live. Thinking about death in a healthy way is yet another superpower.

The equaliser

Death is the great equaliser.

Rich or poor, powerful or meek, tall or short, fit or fat, we all go sooner or later.

The world is dotted with the graves of kings, emperors, tycoons and tyrants who ruled supreme in their time, and yet today are unknown and forgotten. Their remains are dust in the wind, just the same as those whom they ruled over.

The Egyptian pharaohs and the emperors of China, Japan and Rome were quite literally the Gods of their time, and yet death visited them too, just as it did the mortals that served them.

Presumably, most of these people did not expect to be forgotten, and anticipated that their riches and power would carry weight even after they left this mortal realm. This proved not to be the case.

From the beginning of time, every single person who has ever lived has died. No matter how much wealth or power you accumulate, you will die, and you will be forgotten.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Why must we insist on being remembered? A person with healthy self-esteem doesn’t need the adulation or recognition of others even when they are alive, much less after they are long gone.

Wanting to leave a legacy to benefit others and wanting to leave a legacy to keep your memory alive are two very different things.

One is useful, the other is futile.

No matter how wonderful you may be, you will still eventually be forgotten. Your name might be on multiple plaques, statues and buildings, you might have a giant mausoleum built to commemorate yourself, and perhaps you might even make it into history books and have a movie of the week made about you, but still, eventually, no one will remember you. They may remember the concept of you, but not you. The name but not the person. Even your most filial descendants won’t have a clue who their great-great-grandmother really was beyond cursory platitudes.

Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Isaac Newton, Qin Shi Huang, Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ludwig Beethoven, Henry Ford, Plato, Albert Einstein – they are amongst the most famous people to have ever lived. Their impact stretches across centuries. And yet how many of us, know them as people, rather than 2D cardboard characters?

For the less famous majority, legacy is even more fleeting.

How many people remember the 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur? Despite holding one of the most powerful and influential positions a person can have, he is virtually unknown today.

How about the founders of the East India Company, John Watts and George White? In the 1600’s, their company dominated global trade, and built a literal empire in India, becoming a major military and political power, with a private army 260,000 men strong. At its peak, the company was worth an inflation adjusted $7.9 trillion, which is significantly more than the GDP of all but 2 countries in the world today, and many times the value of any company that currently exists. The company caused untold suffering for countless people, acting like an evil empire to protect its interests, engaging in rampant slave trading and colonial oppression. Their existence impacted millions and the unfortunate effects of their activities are still felt today, and yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers the founders today.

Greatness in life is certainly no guarantee of a respectful afterlife.

Albert Einstein’s express wishes were to have his remains cremated and the ashes secretly scattered upon his death. However, when he did die in 1955 his brain was illegally removed and sectioned into over 170 pieces. At the same time, Einstein’s eyes were taken and given to his eye doctor and friend, Henry Abrams. As far as we know, they remain to this day in a safe deposit box in New York City.

Napoleon Bonaparte was the first Emperor of the French, conquering and controlling numerous territories over continental Europe for more than a decade. No doubt many a man cowered before his might during his heyday. And yet, upon his suspicious death, his penis was removed, stolen and smuggled, passing along from collector to collector until it one day came to be displayed in New York in 1927. There, it was promptly mocked for being small and compared to a shrivelled eel. Subsequent attempts to sell the penis met with difficulties, until a urologist finally purchased it in 1977 for safe keeping in his private home, where it presumably still rests today, far from the rest of his remains.

George Washington is of course one of the most famous US Presidents in history. It is well known that his dental hygiene left something to be desired and there is a popular myth that he used a set of wooden dentures, ridiculous as it might sound. In reality, his dentures were made from a much more reasonable amalgamation of his own teeth, cow’s teeth, gold and ivory from a hippopotamus. His dental hygiene wasn’t a complete write-off though; upon swearing in as the first President of the United States, Washington was still in possession of one tenacious tooth. This lone survivor is now on display in a tavern in New York, along with a lock of his hair, and a piece of his coffin.

None of these larger than life men could have foreseen that their body parts would one day become curios, traded and displayed as amusing trinkets for others.

It is always better to do things because they are right, not just because other people think they are right. If you spend your life seeking the adulation of others, you are just chasing sand in a sinkhole; your rewards can be nothing but fleeting and insubstantial. If you are ever in a position of power, and tempted by arrogance and hubris to belittle and bully your fellow man, or to feel unduly superior or worthy, remember Napoleon’s penis.

Death shows us that pride, arrogance, greed and the mistreatment of others make little sense in the grand scheme of things. We all end up the same in the end, we might as well make the journey a pleasant one, for others as well as for ourselves.

Death is something that unifies us all. It is something we will all eventually experience. We will all watch and lament as public figures pass on. We will all lose people that we care about. And eventually we will all join them. If nothing else, this makes us brothers and sisters in our shared experience of humanity.

Life is a cycle. Tides go in and out. The sun rises and the sun sets. People live and people die. Everything that has happened has likely happened before in some form, and will likely happen again.

There is peace in this, and a bond that connects us all, beyond the artificial and frivolous distinctions that we draw between us.

Fear of death

Death scares us. It is the great unknown. Despite many contradictory ideas about what happens after, no one has ever had the decency to come back and let us know. This makes death a big black box that we can’t make sense of, a pitch-black room of mystery. We don’t like things that we don’t understand.

Even people who believe in heaven aren’t usually particularly anxious to die to get there. Presumably those who believe in hell are in even less of a hurry.

People are so terrified of death that a number of mental health disorders have been linked to it. There’s even a term for it – death-anxiety.

An experiment that primed participants with thoughts of death found that people were more likely to want to name their children after themselves when death was on their minds, in a symbolic desire to live on.

But death is a good thing.

Of course, we speak here only of death itself, rather than other potential aspects related to dying, such as a painful disease or the distress of your loved ones. Those things can be horrible, but death itself is nothing to fear or worry about.

If we’re alive to worry about it, then we’re not dead. If we’re dead, then we can’t worry about it.

Ironically, knowing we are going to die makes us more positive. A 2017 study analysed the sentiment of people with terminal diseases and death row inmates, and compared them with control groups who merely imagined that they were dying. People facing imminent death were considerably more positive than the control group, and the closer they were to death, the more positive they tended to be. It appears we can be happy in any circumstance if we focus on the right things.

If you had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you wouldn't spend all your remaining time (hopefully) having pointless arguments, getting upset about trivial things and playing games 10 hours a day on your phone.

Except that you already have. Life itself is a death sentence. Every second that passes we are closer to death. None of us are getting out of life alive. Why should we need to be facing execution to realise this?

Death is an amazing lens that helps us focus on what is really important to us.

It helps us strip away so many of the nonsensical things that we choose to worry ourselves with. Politics, traffic jams, greed, the opinions of others, status, power, material possessions; they all seem remarkably unimportant and downright juvenile in the face of death.

Steve jobs once said that ‘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. Because 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.’

Life is short

Like a summer holiday that seems long but flashes by in an instance, life is both long and short, and indisputably finite. We have a certain number of hours and minutes to live our lives. There is no point wasting them as slaves to our baser instincts and negative emotions.

With our death-anxiety blinkers on, most of us don’t appreciate how limited our time on Earth really is.

Hours are a nice unit. Long enough to be substantial, yet short enough to pass by quickly. Each of them waiting to be filled with experiences. Perhaps the nicest thing about them is that there seem to be rather a lot of them in stock.

Someone who lives to 80 years old will experience 700,800 hours (or 29,200 days or 4,160 weeks or 960 months).

If you’re an average person, it’s likely that you will spend slightly less than a third of your life asleep. That’s around 256,000 hours snoring.

Rather painfully, an additional 61,000 hours will be spent simply trying to fall asleep.

That’s a total of 33 years of your life spent in bed. (Sidebar: it is well worth buying a good bed and pillows; you will use them more than almost anything else you own.)

According to statistical survey data, a typical person will cry 315 times over their adult years, for a total of about 30 hours. Another 5,760 hours will be spent laughing, as well as 840 hours arguing.

About 8,000 hours are spent at school up to secondary school level.

Over 120,000 hours will be spent working, with 10,800 hours of that being unpaid overtime.

About 100,000 hours of your life will be spent looking at screens of some sort (probably far more time than you spend looking at your loved ones). This includes the over 30,000 hours that social media users dedicate to poring over other people’s lives and broadcasting their own.

Around 40,000 hours is spent eating and drinking.

In contrast, we only spend about 6,500 hours exercising and a measly 8,800 hours socialising, even though both of these activities are proven cornerstones of health, wellbeing and happiness.

We spend about 9,600 hours cleaning up, implying we’re more likely to be tidying up than catching up.

Despite it occupying a great deal of our mental bandwidth, according to a 2016 survey, we only spend about 0.4% of our time having sex on average, so over a 60 year span of being sexually active you can expect to have experienced around 2,000 hours of the hokey pokey.

5,650 hours of the average life is spent queuing. Hopefully there’s something worthwhile at the end of the rainbow.

Women spend about 3,300 hours getting themselves ready to go out, whereas men are satisfied with a mere 1,100 hours.

Around 38,000 hours are spent commuting from one place to the other, and over 13,000 blissful hours are spent in the bathroom. This means you are likely to spend twice as much time on the toilet than the treadmill.

While these figures are statistical estimations based on self-reported survey data, which is unreliable at best, the fact remains, we spend a huge amount of our lives on activities we don’t really notice.

Once you factor in all the essentials, there really aren’t that many hours left. You have perhaps 70,000 waking hours that are unspoken for, and you need to make them count.

It seems only logical to allocate more time to activities that are useful, meaningful and/or make you (or others) happy than those that don’t. Exercising, spending time with friends and loved ones, learning new skills and helping others are examples of time well spent. Staring at a wall feeling upset over what your nasty neighbour said to you last Tuesday is not.

Say you’ve just turned 30 years old. That’s over a third of the ride done.

Where did the 262,800 hours that you’ve lived so far go?

How many of those hours have you spent being upset, angry, worried, stressed or otherwise occupied with negative emotion? How many of those negative moments turned out to be necessary or useful?

How many of those hours were spent on mindless activities that were unnecessary, unenjoyable, unproductive and unsatisfying? Activities that literally serve to pass the time, as if you have that much of it to spare.

One day, your last hour will arrive.

There is a last time for everything.

You’ve already experienced many ‘lasts’ without realising it.

There was the last time you ever crawled on your hands and knees as a toddler. The last time you ever played catch. The last time your parents ever cradled you in their arms.

There will be a last time you ever give your own child a piggyback ride.

The last time you laugh till your stomach hurts. The last time you go on a trip with friends without a care in the world.

There will be the last burger you ever eat. The last time you ever visit your favourite park. The last time you see the sea.

One day you will have seen your friend, your partner, your siblings and your parents for the last time. It might be your last day or theirs.

Perhaps you had a best friend growing up that you saw virtually every day. Now you live in different countries and meet up once every two years at best, for a couple of hours over dinner. Say your best friend will die before you, in 25 years. At the current rate, over the entirety of your remaining life, you will see your best friend a maximum of 12 times over 24 hours; most likely less. That is less time than you spent with them in a single week during your teens.

Even this is barring any unfortunate incidences that may accelerate matters. Life is entirely unpredictable; some of the important people in your life may well be gone much sooner than you expect. Knowing that each time could be the last is a good incentive to let petty differences go.

Every single day you are potentially doing something for the last time. Make an effort to be present and experience each moment for what it is.

It makes sense to say goodbye to things that aren’t helpful, in exchange for extra innings where it counts. For most, it would be no great loss to make this the last time you will ever play the latest addictive mobile game, if that meant you could use the extra time to make a trip to see loved ones, have some meaningful experiences or learn something valuable.

There are an infinite number of ways you can choose to spend your time and a very finite number of hours to spend. It’s like walking around the universe’s largest shopping mall with a limited amount of cash in your pocket. You can buy a USB powered pet rock, air-conditioned shoes (aka shoes with holes in them), diet water and a DVD rewinder (all real products). Or you can buy something useful, enjoyable or meaningful for yourself or for others.

Prioritise your time, it’s the most precious resource you have, bar none.


Our reluctance to die is sometimes caused by the somewhat distressing thought that we won’t exist anymore. How will the universe manage without us around? We have things to do and places to be. We can’t just disappear into nothingness.

Not to worry though because this isn’t quite true. In addition to existing in the memories of your loved ones, you will quite literally continue to exist from a physical standpoint.

You are composed of a collection of very normal atoms.

99% of you is just oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. Another 0.85% is made of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine and magnesium. That’s just 11 common elements to make up over 99.85% of you. There are cupcakes with more complicated ingredient lists. The rest of you is a number of trace elements that together weigh less than 10 grams.

There is nothing particularly special about any of these individual atoms. They are commonplace and have existed for a very long time. They just currently happen to be part of a configuration that identifies as you.

Before this, they were part of something or someone else.

After you are gone, your atoms will disassemble and go on to be repurposed again as part of other things, people and creatures.

Your component parts will live on.

Similarly, every time that you exhale, 25 sextillion (2.5 x 1022) oxygen molecules venture out from your body into the great outdoors. That’s a lot of molecules. Multiply that by the number of times you breathe every day, week, month and year and you will soon realise that an extremely large number of people, animals, plants and other creatures will have breathed in what was once part of you at some point in time. In the same way, every breath that you take has previously been part of a great many living things that have lived over many millennia. You will most likely only exchange fluids with a very limited number of people in this world, but you’ll exchange gases with more people than you’ll ever know.

And so in this way, all the atoms that you were made up of, all the atoms that were part of you at one time or another, are effectively eternal.

There’s a little more to you than just your component atoms though. You are a being of energy as well – electrical and chemical energy courses through you constantly. This energy is what your thoughts are made of, what make you ‘you’.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed in a closed system, it may only change states. Your energy therefore cannot die.

All the energy that was once part of you remains in this world, in one form or another. Every bit of heat that radiated from you, every object that you touched and transferred kinetic energy to, every person that you influenced, causing electrical impulses to fire in their brains in turn – all of this energy is eternal and will live on for as long as the universe exists.

There is nothing mystical about this. It is simply an immutable law of the universe; basic physics.

It is somewhat comforting to know that everything that made up you and your deceased loved ones will still be around in perpetuity, just in a different form. Literally, the atoms and energy that made up everyone that lived before us surrounds us everywhere, in the water, in the air, in other people, in animals, in plants, in the ground beneath us and indeed within ourselves.

We are, in a quite literal sense, eternal.

One more chance

Hopefully by now you see that death isn’t all that bad after all. We will of course miss departed loved ones, for that is the most painful thing about death, it brings an end to the joyful interactions that others brought to us. But while we miss them, we do not need to worry about them – death itself is nothing to fear.

Instead, we embrace the power and renewal that death bestows. Thinking about death is a superpower – it focuses us on the things that matter, it helps us take stock of the time left to us, it gives us humility, it allows us to step away from petty, unnecessary troubles (and almost all troubles are petty and unnecessary), it gives us clarity when we need to prioritise and it heightens our appreciation of every moment and every person.

It is a good exercise to periodically ruminate on death as a way of taking stock of your life.

Imagine, really imagine that you are close to death.

Think about all the things that you are grateful for in the life that you have had.

Think about all the things you would do differently.

Think about all the unimportant things that you would stop caring about.

Think about what really matters to you – not what society tells you, not what your peers tell you, not what your mother tells you, but what really matters period.

Think about all the things you would let go of, if you had another chance, another go on the dance floor.

The conclusions you come to will guide you well.

Everyone is going through life trying to eventually make it to the Golden Moment – the day when they will finally be truly happy and satisfied and live happily ever after. The time where they will finally have amassed enough possessions, earned enough qualifications and gained enough respect to at long last declare it to be enough.

This moment does not exist, or rather there is no moment which is less golden than any other, other than in your own mind.

The past doesn’t exist. It is only a memory in your mind.

The future is a fictional concept that does not yet exist and may never come.

The present is all you have. Make the most of it.