It may be true that people throughout history have had trouble dealing with death, but modern people seem to have an especially difficult time with it. They’re not encouraged to think about their own mortality as a rule, except perhaps in churches or at funerals, where the reality can’t be escaped. Members of my sons’ Cub Scout pack were shocked last week when the father of two of the boys, whom I had figured to be in his late 40s, suddenly died. They called in a grief counselor and everything for the boys from other families.
A couple of years ago I asked students in a survey class–in the context of a discussion of William Shakespeare’s decision to retire in his 50s and prepare for his death– to write down how they thought they would die. Several got offended. Many others stared blankly at me as though I were proposing something self-evidently absurd. I’d chalk this up to what William Hazlitt called “the feeling of immortality in youth,” but I haven’t seen much evidence that people my age have given any more thought to their mortality than the typical undergraduate.
One of the strategies used in the Western tradition to remind ourselves of our mortality is to meditate on a memento mori, a death-themed work of art. Such paintings, sculptures, and the like not only encourage us to prepare ourselves for the inevitable, but also can motivate us to live meaningful lives while we have the opportunity instead of frittering them away.
The Art of Manliness blog has compiled a collection of memento mori images for this Halloween. If you’re not a scaredy-cat, you should check it out here.