Memento Mori

I’ve been going back and forth for the past week, trying to decide whether or not to post something on here. Thursday was the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death and the family was coming together to acknowledge the occasion. At first, I planned to write a post as normal and keep the occasion private but, as Thursday drew closer, I started to feel that I should write something about Pa — after all, he introduced me to FPs, taught me to write, and set me on the path that led to this blog. It seemed fitting but, ultimately, I realised that there just wouldn’t be time. 

But sometimes things stick with you, ideas keep coming, and the only way to deal with it is to note them down, write it up, and get it out there. So today, I thought we’d explore something a little different to usual. Something that might strike some of you as a little morbid but also, hopefully, something uplifting. I’d like to talk about death, both his and our own. 

My grandfather was not amazing by the conventional measures of society. He wasn’t a high-flying executive or an adventurer or celebrity but he did bear the qualities that we might reasonably expect to find in a person, but seldom do. He was incredibly decent, and fair, patient and tolerant. He was deeply caring and the wisest person I know. Most notable was his humility and modesty, preferring to avoid public acknowledgement when he did kind or notable things. He even avoided his own birthday; I suspect that he deliberately chose to marry my grandmother on his birthday so he could deflect the attention on to her. 

That modesty also applied to funerals. We all knew that he didn’t really want to have an event to mark his passing and would have been comfortable with a private cremation without friends or family present. Of course, my grandmother disagreed with him; she insisted on a funeral service and, as usual, my grandfather put his own preferences aside and agreed with his wife. They were married for six decades and one week, a remarkably long union, and they were in love as much as ever when he passed away. Even in his final days and weeks, they held hands for hours on end and openly flirted with each other. His final words, before slipping into semi-consciousness and eventually passing away, were thanking her for everything she had done for him over those years, for making his life so rich and satisfying. They truly loved each other, and that love was a wonderful thing to see. 

I think he disliked funerals because he felt that they were unnecessary. He saw them primarily as a chance for people to say things that they had not expressed in life and, when you are as sincere and open about your feelings as he was, you didn’t need a final chance. Not that he expressed those feelings in words, it was in the way he acted and his incredible generosity. I don’t recall him ever telling me that he loved me but I was never in any doubt about how deeply he felt it. Everyone knew how he felt about them and he knew how others felt about him, so a funeral was simply unnecessary. 

In his eulogy, I argued that he was wrong. I agreed that funerals were a chance for us to express our appreciation and gratitude for someone and a chance to say goodbye, and that these aspects are vitally important (particularly for those of us — most of us — who struggle to be as sincere as he was). But more important than that is the interruption to our lives and the reminder of one unavoidable, irrefutable truth: that we too will die. 

For most of us, this fact is something we prefer to ignore. We fill our lives with noise — with books, with reality shows, with our hobbies — in part to block out the thoughts lurking in the back of our minds, the thoughts that we encounter in moments of boredom and contemplation: the knowledge that our death is inevitable. That there will come a time when we will cease to exist and everything will continue in our absence. Some will mourn our passing but, eventually, we will be forgotten and it will be as though we had never existed. 

This knowledge is uncomfortable and, to some extent, unfathomable. At least for me (and I suspect I am far from alone in this), it is also intensely frightening. Frightening to know and frightening to let myself think about. But these are not the only reasons we prefer to avoid such thoughts or even, perhaps, the main reason. The main reason is because this knowledge is extremely confronting.

The reality of death means that our lives are finite and we therefore cannot do everything that we might wish to do or achieve, and so we must make choices about what is necessary and what is merely desirable. I might wish to lead a country or a company but my stronger desire is to have a family of my own and to be a present, committed father. It is unlikely that I can achieve all three — not to mention everything else I would like to do — which means I need to cross certain things off the list so I can focus on those which are most important and will bring the most meaning or satisfaction to my life. 

Funerals are important because they compel us to reflect on death, to contemplate how a person chose to live their life — what they chose to do, what they chose not to do — and to contrast their choices with our own. Sometimes, this can bring us reassurance about our choices: seeing the long-term benefits can remind us that the short-term costs are worthwhile. Perhaps seeing the satisfaction that family has brought to someone’s life can remind us that the stress and expense are worthwhile, and give us the strength to persevere. Other lives might lead us to reconsider our choices, to recognise the meaning that can come from better understanding what we find meaningful and pursuing it more vigorously.

Life, death and time: Vanité, by Philippe de Champaigne

Life, death and time: Vanité, by Philippe de Champaigne

Not everyone will be comfortable with this perspective, but accepting the reality of death and allowing that knowledge to shape our choices can enable us to live happier, more fulfilling lives. I think there are two fields which can help us make those choices: philosophy can help us to understand what pursuits and ends might be satisfying to us, and economics, which can help us to weigh up our choices and decide what will bring us the most happiness or satisfaction. Although economics has historically focussed on questions around resources and money, I suspect that it will become increasingly applied to questions of life. 

Thinking about this over the last few days, I am reminded of why I find my work so rewarding. Teaching an intro course is stressful and often draining, but it also means I get to meet a lot of people who aren’t sure about their goals or what direction to take in life. That gives me an opportunity to engage with them, to learn about what they enjoy, and what they hope to achieve; from there, I can help them to understand their options and support them in choosing the path that will be most rewarding. Sometimes that means changing degree or leaving university completely. (Perhaps my superiors would prefer I encouraged all of my students into an economics degree, but I’ve never been good at toeing the company line.) Even in a bad semester, being able to help just one student can be enough to make it all feel worthwhile. I suspect a lot of teachers will understand just how fulfilling this can be. 

Blogging gives me a similarly satisfying experience. The satisfaction here comes from the knowledge I am helping readers on two levels. The obvious level is simply in that I’m trying to explain how the FP market works in a way which hopefully enables you to make better choices for your business or for your hobby. But I’m hoping the blog goes deeper than that and helps you to internalise the general insights from the economic way of thinking: weighing up both costs and benefits, thinking about alternatives, and always assuming that others are acting rationally (or that there is a rational explanation for the apparently-absurd). The goal is not to inspire more of you to become economists but to help you make decisions in your own best interest. Perhaps blogging is not as effective as teaching, but it does allow me to reach a much larger audience — more people read each post here than total number of students I have been able to teach. 

I doubt I’ll be teaching and blogging forever but I’m certain I’ll always be doing something that enables me to help others do what’s best for them. That’s what is satisfying and meaningful in my life, and it brings me some peace when I’m thinking about death and feeling that fear. But I never would have realised this or found that peace if I had kept avoiding the idea of death and not let it compel me to reflect on life. 

Although I wasn’t present for the conversation, I’m certain Pa had these thoughts in his mind when he spoke to the doctor and told him it was time to die. I’m sure that it was a scary moment, even for someone with his convictions, but he must have been comforted by the knowledge that his life had been a rich and meaningful one. He achieved the things he set out to achieve. 

Pa might not have approved of a funeral or commemoration or even time spent reflecting on him, but I think he would have been proud to know that he had helped me to find meaning in my own life. He was the best man I ever knew and I’m so fortunate that, even a year after his death, he is still teaching me lessons about life and helping me to find my way.

Pa, holding court in his inimitable style. 

Pa, holding court in his inimitable style.