Some forms of meditation are technical, such as meditation on the breath, body sensations or sound. Others are topical, centring on life themes, devotion, scriptural content or ideas. One meditative topic that has been commonly used both in the East and West is death.
The Greeks exhorted us to remember death, the Buddhists went to charnel grounds to see dead bodies rot, and the Daoists compared death to the natural changes of all things. I recently visited the basement of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, where the monks used the bones and skulls of dead monks as wall decorations. In the innermost room there was an inscription, speaking to us who are still alive: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.” In order to avoid any vain hopes of posthumous glory as a venerated skeleton, the different bones of one and the same person were scattered all over. Over the centuries, four thousand monks ended up in the “gallery”.
Even in forms of meditation that do not focus on death as such, the idea of letting go and of not clinging to your individual existence is often central. A free mental attitude is a question of not being too attached to the things you have and are, but to be able to “die” from them – even while you’re still alive.