The idea of the memento mori (in Latin, “remember that you will die”) was a common one in later medieval Western Christianity. Many suspect that this theory and practice was influenced by the Great Plague of the 14th century, since it’s about this time that you begin to see reminders of death, particularly skeletons interacting with living humans representing excess and decadence, depicted in art and architecture. Perhaps, but it also represented a trend in later medieval Christian thought towards inner contemplation in general, particularly regarding the transience of human existence and the vanity of earthly possessions and pursuits. There may be some relation to the rise of humanism and the interest in some classical philosophers, particularly the Stoics, in the topic. The phrase was reportedly whispered in the ear of Roman generals while they celebrated their formal triumphs.
That’s the history. In more recent years, our memento mori have been funerary monuments, such customs as keeping a lock of hair of a person who has died. We tend to focus more on commemorating the dead than in contemplating what it all means in a deeper sense, unless we happen to be especially religious. But I noticed something in passing a couple of days ago that got me thinking of that topic: the very real presence of the dead on Facebook. I’m not talking so much about fan pages for famous figures of the distant past, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, but more about the presence of friends who have died in your own friends list. I am a user of Facebook Purity, and I was recently notified that one of my friends had deactivated their account. It turned out to be a glitch, but I was able to pull up a list of other accounts that had been deactivated. About half of them were the deceased. I also realized at that point that I had a couple of other friends, both of who had recently died, whose accounts were very much still active. One of these latter group had a birthday in the last couple of days, and they received a number of birthday wishes. Most were from people who were clearly aware of their passing, but a couple were not.
And there was the memento mori. I was left wondering about the future, watching those in my friends list depart their earthly existence, leaving Facebook ghosts or memorials or whatever you would like to call it. That is a relatively new concept. Aside from monuments in cemeteries and personal memories (such as photos and the like), the friends of someone who has died have not, until now, had a way to share a view of what those people were like in life. For at least one friend, I can visit their profile and see precisely what they were doing right up to the days before they died. And that, of course, makes me contemplate my own death. Will I see it coming? Will friends visit my Facebook pages afterwards and remember? Will there even be a Facebook? Or will it increasingly become a virtual cemetery where increasingly elderly people wander about among their departed friends until one day, only ghosts wander there?
What this always does for me is makes me realize the privilege of my current existence. For certain, I will not mourn the passing of hate, and war, and pestilence and famine, and the men and women who spend their lives guided by or pursued by these four horsemen. But the things of beauty–those, too, will pass. The works of art, of language, of music, and the virtues that inspire them among humanity–those, too, will pass. And the brief burst of grief in that inevitability is tempered by the fervent desire to cherish all of that ever more, given that each of us, and the things we do in this world, are infinitely improbable in the vastness of the universe–but yet, here we are. We cannot know, or control, our legacy, and in the end, even the most famous among us will be forgotten. And outside of our planet, who knows whether the universe knows our deeds? That is a matter of faith for some, and a mystery for all.
And so we come to that counterpoint of the Stoic–the Epicurean, who saw happiness and pleasure to be the greatest good. The Epicurean is not a hedonist-“the way to attain such pleasure (is) to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires,” (according to Wikipedia, at least) In that way, one would gain tranquility and freedom from fear and pain. As it is so often with me, I find myself to be a syncretist in matters of classical philosophy, finding things of use in both schools.
For now, I may make it a point in the future to wander these virtual cemeteries, and remember those who were and still are in our memories.