Talking about death isn’t easy for anyone. Fear of pain, loss, and the unknown affect each of us. With brains wired for survival and connection, we want to live and keep our loved ones close. It’s easy to ignore the reality of death, but avoiding it only increases anxiety and mental illness. Meditating on death is a simple way to begin facing your fear.
Why should anyone meditate on death?
Death is as natural and normal as birth. Yet we avoid it like an unexpected plague. There are almost 184,000 deaths every day, equating to more than two people dying every second and about 67 million deaths yearly.
In today’s modern society, however, we are far removed from death. We see it in movies and video games, but most of us aren’t close to it in real life. When someone dies at home, the funeral director comes and takes the body away. If someone dies in a hospital, loved ones leave, and nurses prepare the body for the morgue. Most memorial services no longer open the casket for mourners to view the body one last time.
Most of us will never prepare a body for burial. We cringe at the very thought and stuff the issue back into our subconscious, the back burner of our mind. This distance makes death mysterious and even secretive.
Yet, ancient global traditions and modern science agree – it is good for your mind and body to remember often that you and your loved ones will die, maybe even sooner than later.
Death meditation brings our feelings about death into the forefront of our thinking, our conscious minds. Facing death anxiety openly empowers us to conquer the fear.
3 benefits of death meditation
Buddhism and Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, are the most well-known traditions that teach the benefits of death meditation. Both believe death is a normal part of life and that seeing it as normal may free you from fear. They also say remembering death everyday changes how you live and helps you die a better death when the day comes.
1. Freedom from fear
Epictetus, an early Stoic philosopher, said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”
Stoicism teaches followers to focus on what they can control and not waste energy on things they can’t. Death may be delayed with a healthy lifestyle or ended by your own hand. But, otherwise, you cannot control when and how you die.
You can, however, control the way you view death. Reminding yourself daily that death is inevitable helps relieve death anxiety, also known as thanatophobia. Stoics call this daily reminder memento mori, which means “remember death” or “remember you die”.
Buddhists contemplate death through mindfulness practices called Maraṇasati meditations, discussed later in this article. These are death awareness exercises that also help you remember death daily.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Jagaro says intentionally thinking about death allows the “fear to arise so that we can learn to transcend it.” Like memento mori, Maranasati mediations are not intended to be depressing and morbid but to help free you from fear and wasted energy.
2. A better life now
Buddhists and Stoics also believe that contemplating death improves the way we live now. Once you address fear, you can live with vigor and intention each day. Your values become clear while unimportant things fade away.
“We all live in foolish ways, simply because we don’t consciously contemplate the fact of death,” says Jagaro. “Contemplating death helps to break this habitual way of living, where we take so much of life for granted, constantly overlooking the present and looking to the future.”
Epictetus wrote,” Keep death before your eyes each day…and you’ll never have a base thought or excessive desire.”
Death meditation can even improve damaged relationships. When we think death is far off, we allow hurt, resentment, hatred, and conflict to linger as if we have all the time in the world to address it.
3. Peace when death comes
Thinking about death now makes dying more peaceful when that day arrives. Imagine suddenly facing death tomorrow after ignoring it for much of your life. It’s hard to die peacefully when you haven’t prepared for it.
Preparing for your death with intentional meditation and frank discussions can increase your sense that death is manageable and meaningful, known as a Sense of Coherence in psychology.
As Jagaro says, “[Death meditation] enables us to live a good life and die a good death. What more could you want?”
How to meditate on death
There are many ways to meditate on death, from simply reflecting on it to meditating for long periods. A good first step is to think about death as a normal part of life. It’s not a strange human problem but an inevitable event for all of us.
Contemplating death as a cycle can be helpful. Buddhists view death as a rebirth. Stoics are similar, seeing death as a return to pure energy in the universe. Others find solace in how the body feeds the earth after they die, whether their soul continues to exist or not.
Another way to meditate is to practice memento mori by creating reminders that you will one day die. One excellent way to remember death is to journal your beliefs and thoughts about it. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, the great ancient Stoics, all considered journaling a vital daily habit of self-examination. Feelings exposed by journaling may be too intense to face on your own. Discuss them with a loved one, a spiritual guide, or a counselor if you need to.
You can also practice memento mori by posting artwork, symbols, and quotes that remind you of death. A skull is a classic symbol of memento mori. You might also consider posting this quote from Marcus Aurelius, “Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.”
You can take a deeper step into death meditation with Buddhist Maranasati meditations. These exercises range from short chants and meditations as part of your morning routine to deeper contemplations like meditating on the breakdown of the body during the dying and death process.
For those ready and willing, The Nine-part Meditation is a Maranasati meditation taught by Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg. He adapted the exercise from the teachings of Atisha, an 11th-century Indian Buddhist sage. Doing this meditation with a guide or following Rosenberg’s directions is best.
The nine-part meditation practice on death
- Everyone has to die
- Our lifespan is decreasing continuously
- The amount of time spent during our life to develop the mind is very small
- Human life expectancy is uncertain
- There are many causes of death
- The human body is so fragile
- Our possessions and enjoyments cannot help
- Our loved ones cannot help
- Our own body cannot help
American writer and mediation teacher Steven Levine offers deep meditative work in his book, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. You can follow his year-long program of practical strategies and guided meditations. He also wrote a guided meditation on dying to read with a friend.
Let death change you
As a registered nurse working at the hospital bedside for several years, my most sacred task was caring for the dying and the dead -- talking with a patient when they could no longer talk back, watching for subtle changes in their breathing so I knew when to treat their pain and air hunger, moistening their mouths with swabs, seeing their last gulp of air, and listening to their heart for silence. It changed me as I cleaned many bodies, removed various lines and tubes, and zipped them into a body bag.
Death is no longer unusual to me but expected and endurable. If their deaths were precious and sacred, yours and mine could be, too, no matter how it comes.
You may not sit with the dead or the dying soon, but you can try bringing death just a little closer through reminders and meditations.
As Levine wrote, “Preparing for death is one of the most profoundly healing acts of a lifetime.”
Talking and thinking about death isn’t easy, but ancient global traditions and modern science agree – it is good for your mind and body.
Avoiding and ignoring death increases death anxiety, known as thanatophobia.
Death meditation may reduce fear, improve your life, and make dying more peaceful.
Death meditations are as simple as reflecting on death or as complex as long Buddhist meditations.
By finding the right type of meditation for you, you can enjoy the benefits of death meditation.
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Shining the Light of Death on Life: Maranasati Meditation (Part I)
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Shining the Light of Death on Life: Maranasati Meditation (Part II)
Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time. The Supreme Meditation
Mindfulness in positive psychology: The science of meditation and wellbeing. Mortality and mindfulness: How intense encounters with death can generate spontaneous mindfulness.
PositivePsychology.com. Maranasati Meditation: How to Practice Mindfulness of Death
PositivePsychology.com. What Does it Mean to Have a Sense of Coherence?
Stoicism – Philosophy as a Way of Life. The Stoic Kiss of Death: Contemplating love, loss, and mortality