The other day, I was sitting on a park bench in the playground with my son, struggling with a work problem. Was I being rude on that Zoom call? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so categorical. I pulled out my phone to send a quick apology. Just then a notification popped up on my screen:
Remember, you are going to die.
I looked at him for a second, shocked.
Remember, you are going to die.
Suddenly I didn’t care so much about that Zoom call anymore. What if they thought I was too pushy? In 20 years, I won’t even remember their names. I turned off my phone, put it in my pocket, and went to play with my son on the slide.
That grim notification on my phone is WeCroak, an app that reminds you five times a day that you’re going to die. As the app’s website states, the mission is to “find happiness by contemplating your mortality”.
The idea that contemplating your mortality will help your life is not new. “Many religious and philosophical traditions have insisted that in order to live fully, we must explicitly and consciously accept the fact that we will not be here forever. says Sheldon Solomon, social psychologist and one of the authors of The worm in the heart: on the role of death in life. In Buddhism, this practice is called Maranasati, the contemplation of death. For Nikki Mirghafori, a Buddhist technologist and teacher from Palo Alto, California, contemplating death has many benefits. “The first is to align our lives with our values,” said Mirghafori in a podcast interview in August. Other benefits include greater enlightenment, more freedom (both in life and at the time of death), less time wasted, and greater kindness and gratitude. “If we have made peace with our own mortality, we can be fully present.”
As long as the internet exists, so do mortality reminders. You can find the day that you will die Death clock, which has predicted dates of death since 2006. There is Clock of life, an app that counts until your estimated death and lets you know when you engage in activities that may shorten your lifespan. There is Ticking, a watch that displays the time you have left. And of course, WeCroak, a simple yet elegant app that reminds you five times a day that you are going to die and displays a death quote.
We spend our lives on our phones; it makes sense that we consider mortality there too. Well, sort of. “It is fair but likely to have unintended and generally deleterious consequences.” The problem, Solomon said, is that we’re not considering it. “The monks were sitting all day in an empty room with an empty desk, where staring at a skull surely kept the idea of its transient nature in mind. The difference is that when you receive the alert on your phone, it can be a very fleeting reminder of death. “
Mirghafori says it’s okay. Not only is she an enthusiastic user of WeCroak, she also recommends it to students in her death contemplation class. “I think it’s not the same, but there are so many different practices.”
Hansa Bergwall, a co-creator of WeCroak, says he never received a complaint from the 130,000 people who downloaded the app and the 80,000 active users. Instead, he’s been given countless positive stories: a girl cherishing her final moments with her mother, a young professional overcoming the fear of public speaking, a man trying to escape a life of opioid addiction. His theory is that WeCroak users are people who are intentionally trying to create a practice of contemplating death. “People aren’t going to try this unless they really want to,” he says. “It’s not something you accidentally download to your phone.”