Supposedly the most rich and famous of the Roman generals would sometimes have a slave who was to be their memento mori -- a reminder of death. When the general was feeling puffed up about his victory and enjoying all the accolades during a victory march, it was the slave's job to step up and remind his master that while he was striding in high cotton now, he was going to die like everybody else, and to keep that in mind.
It was an attempt to put life in perspective.
Not a job I'd want, telling the guy who owned me he was gonna die whenever he got cocky. I suspect here was always an element of killing the messenger of bad news going on ...
The crowd is cheering, you are top of the world, and your slave leans in and says, "Hey, don't forget, you are gonna die, man."
You might be tempted to smite the fellow right then and there.
One of the reasons that people kept skulls on their desks, another reminder.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.
But in our society, we tend to gloss over such things, and now and then, a reminder of the Big Sleep can help you remember what is important and what isn't. You can spend your life sweating the small stuff, and it's like the old saw: How many people on their death bed say they wish they'd spent more time at the office?
Life is short. You get to be dead a long time.
In a discussion of such things on Rory's blog -- link in the sidebar down and to the right -- I was reminded of the Hearse Song, one of those nasty little children's ditties we sang as kids without really understanding what it meant. Every version I've heard is slightly different but most of them start with something like:
Did you ever think when a hearse goes by, you might be the next one to die?
Goes gruesomely on from there, and the last verse of the version I recall is:
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout/
they eat your eyes, they eat your nose, they eat the jelly between your toes/
they spread it on a piece of bread -- and that's what happens after you're dead.
Done to the tune of "Spooks on Parade," with a chorus of dead, dead, dead, dead/dead, dead, dead, dead/ sung in the background over the verses ...
There. Now that I've brightened your morning, have a nice day. Make the most of each moment.