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Memento Mori: Is It Healthy To Remember We’re Going To Die?

It could be argued that death has become sanitized in some parts of the modern world, a far-removed concept few of us have to face until it happens to someone close, and even then we typically experience grief from a distance to the actual dead. In the Victorian era, the advent of photography brought in a new trend of memento mori in which the recently dead were posed for a posthumous portrait. It might sound weird, but was it healthy?


The awareness of death is known as mortality salience and it’s a key concept in terror management theory. The theory goes that we humans are biologically predisposed for self-preservation, but we’re also smart enough to know that death is inevitable, and marrying those two ideas can cause paralyzing terror.


To be able to function with the knowledge of our own mortality, TMT says we lean on culture and self-esteem to get by. Culture gives us a sense of permanence, that our influence can extend beyond our life expectancy, while self-esteem is a buffer because it makes us feel like we’re making the most of the time that we have.

There’s been lots of research into mortality salience, but a 2010 review looked at two decades of research to see how it influenced people’s behaviors and beliefs. The paper kicks off with a sage quote from Ernest Becker attributed to 1973:

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.

The Dance Of Death, a 15th century fresco at the National Gallery of Slovenia, poetically demonstrates how death connects us all.

So, how does that mainspring materialize in our lives? The analysis confirmed that mortality salience is indeed a driver for human behavior and cognitive processes, and that it has a lasting effect on us. The effect can be defensive and negative, but it can also be good. Death reminders come in different packages, but in the example of near-death experiences, it found mortality salience had the potential to lead to positive growth.


Gathering around Great Aunt June for one last selfie might seem strange in the moment, but the memento mori of the Victorians may have had its merits. For starters, photography was brand new at the time and a dead subject makes for a photogenic one when you’re dealing with long exposure times. The deceased could also be posed with their favorite things, dressed in their Sunday best, and it wasn’t uncommon for the photo to be the first and last ever taken of them.

Memento mori hasn’t died out, being a practice that’s encouraged in some hospital settings, particularly in the instance of bereaved parents. In Parental Grief and Memento Mori Photography, authors Cybele Blood and Joanne Cacciatore explored the narrative, meaning, culture, and context surrounding memento mori in the modern era.

Their investigations revealed that for some parents, having photos of their dead child contributed to psychological wellness, ritualizing behaviors, and the generation of meaning. This was reflected in the themes of the participant responses, some of whom spoke about tributes and honor, and of how the event led to family bonding or significant life changes such as a switch in career.

As terror management theory suggests, for some people, confrontation with the death of others and our collective mortality can be a driver for change. There is no single, evidenced prescription for facing down mortality, but it’s possible experiencing it from a distance may be removing ourselves from the sometimes life affirming influence of mortality salience.

Source Link: Memento Mori: Is It Healthy To Remember We’re Going To Die?

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