Memento Mori is an object representing a reminder or warning of death like a skull or an hourglass. It translate from Latin into Remember your mortality. Thoreau says that we have forgotten how to die because we do not know how to live. He lists off a few memorable names of iconic individuals who have truly lived and have truly died. for those lesser individuals who stand by and let injustice reign supreme, Thoreau bluntly declares that they are already dead.
This extreme and radical denunciation of life poses the question: Is fighting for the extermination of injustice something people are willing to die for? Thoreau would think so. He says, ” I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable” (133). Knowing that humans are immortal and that injustice is rampant in society, what should our roles be to curb injustice? Should we acknowledge it but return to our normal ways or should we be as violent and vehement as John Brown knowing that death will come eventually?
Thoreau tells us “only half a dozen or so have died since the world began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there’s no hope of you. You haven’t got your lesson yet…But be sure you do die, nevertheless. Do your work and finish it. If you know how to begin, you will know when to end” (134). The mere acknowledgement that injustice exists among you should be the call to action. This first beginning will translate into some action of opposition to injustice that will eventually lead you to an actual death within Thoreau’s definition. He suggests that we need first, live, and by living that means standing up to the tyranny of a democratic government. Secondly, the inevitability of death is reassured and vindicated through living. However he uses John Brown as the ideal example of living and dying similarly. But Brown murdered U.S. marshals protecting the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry. Those murdered had nothing to do with upholding the institution of slavery. In mob-like fashion, Brown and his gang murdered them. Thoreau is referring to Brown as an already dead man knowing that he has not yet been executed. This textual memento mori shows that Brown was willing to die for the cause.
The problem with dying for a cause is the fact that people are set in their ways. With Thoreau’s transcendentalist moment with his night-long stay in jail, he came to the realization that unjust laws are meant to be broken. But is death the price for breaking an unjust law? Knowing that all human beings lack such a transcendental experience in their lives, they usually contented with their lives even though injustice is everywhere around them.
Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr have all died while fighting gross injustices of our world. Being assassinated while preaching peaceful non-violence protest is drastically different than taking the problem into your own hands like John Brown did. However, knowing that death is unavoidable, should individuals take it on themselves to fight for injustice as fellow men even though it may not affect them directly?