Message from the other side: WeCroak is ‘mindfulness noir’. Illustration: Phil Hackett/Observer
In the midst of Saturday chores, death is waiting, as I type a reminder to buy toothpaste. I try to give each WeCroak alert a respectful moment’s thought: at one point I say to my husband who is agitating to go to the supermarket: “Hang on, I need to contemplate my mortality.” (He’s French, so this does not faze him.) Even so, I can’t follow through: the quote is some impenetrable Jack Kerouac musing and I switch guiltily to an article about the revival of the pencil skirt.
Lying in corpse pose at yoga class, I try to visualise being an actual corpse. “I am going to die,” I think. Then: “I am going to have a burrito for dinner.”
WeCroak isn’t the first attempt to harness 21st-century technology to this ancient spiritual practice:
Tikker, a somewhat morbid wristwatch invented by a Swedish former grave digger, estimates your life expectancy, then shows it running down, second by second. In comparison, WeCroak’s discreet alerts have an upward battle to hit home. The iconography of death is everywhere, but divorced from any meaning. Asos currently offers 205 skull-themed items, from Cheap Monday’s perky skull logo T-shirts to cufflinks and slippers. , Pixar’s latest blockbuster, offers up a ravishingly beautiful and comic version of the Mexican land of the dead as family entertainment, while over on Pinterest, one skeleton inspiration board features a skull that holds your kitchen sponge on its mandible. Coco Sunday
I’m still in bed, but WeCroak is already on my case. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth,” it says, which is a bit intense before coffee. Later I make some surprisingly successful biscuits, but just as I am vaingloriously posting the results on
Instagram, WeCroak pipes up, reminding me all my earthly achievements are dust.
Originally memento mori images were intended for precisely this: a corrective to earthly vanity. In an enduring medieval legend
three grisly animated corpses warn three young noblemen that their youth and wealth will soon pass; 17th-century vanitas paintings juxtapose earthly trappings with skulls and extinguished candles, while the Victorians favoured memento mori jewellery featuring worms, snakes and skulls as spiritual aides-memoire. “The point is to humble the viewer,” explains Elizabeth Harper, who explores Catholic death iconography on her blog The Three Living and Three Dead All The Saints You Should Know. “That’s why in so many European memento mori paintings you see high-ranking people – kings and queens – dancing with corpses.”
My biscuits get 208 likes, however, giving me some excellent worldly gratification.
Many of the WeCroak quotes are a bit anaemic, the kind of inspirational homilies you’d scroll irritably past on an acquaintance’s Facebook feed. I feel I need something more raw; the digital equivalent of the
double-decker medieval tombsthat showed the deceased in all his or her worldly glory on top and their decomposing corpse below (“Truly the mullet of tombs,” says Elizabeth Harper). Perhaps WeCroak needs a premium version, with only really graphic stuff?
In the absence of WeCroak Platinum, I self-prescribe an hourlong YouTube video entitled
Guided Death Meditation: Full Spiritual Liberation (warning Graphic Content). I watch it on my laptop with 28 tabs open. The narrating voice is intense and slow, with a hint of Mr Burns from The Simpsons and when he intones “The breath body of your spirit is now hovering above your lifeless body,” I snort-laugh.
Skull pizza to go: be aware your next slice could be your last Illustration: Phil Hackett/Observer Tuesday
On a genuinely rotten day of galloping anxiety and work stress, I find my WeCroak alerts oddly comforting. “What’s the alternative, being dead?” they ask, which gives me some perspective. My friend Fernanda emails and I explain my mission. “What I need is an app that reminds me five times a day that
everyone else is going to die,” she types. We have a restorative chat about potential candidates. Wednesday
I am eating microwave rice from the packet and watching
loudly to drown out my neighbour’s atonal saxophone noodling when WeCroak sends Pablo Neruda to rain on my lunchbreak parade. “The graves are full of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.” Am I wasting my limited time on earth with Uncle Ben and Meredith Grey? Well, it’s my funeral, I think defensively. All this death nagging is making me mutinous. Later, I get an alert that reads: “I am writing this book because we are all going to die” (Kerouac again) and find myself saying out loud: “Well I am watching a video of a chinchilla riding a tortoise, Jack. Carpe diem.” Grey’s Anatomy Thursday
For some reason I get bonus alerts today: seven reminders of my imminent demise. I put in extra efforts myself, browsing
Death: A Graveside Companion, a lavishly illustrated compendium of essays with titles such as “The Mortician’s Art” over breakfast. My son glances at the mummified monks of Palermo, rolls his eyes and walks away. I’m tempted to shout: “Such shall thou be!” after him like one of the worm-ridden Three Dead in the 14th-century De Lisle Psalter, but settle for “Pick up your towels!”
I’m also reading Caitlin Doughty’s funny and fascinating
, about mortuary practices across the world. Doughty, a death acceptance activist and undertaker, describes Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where families spend years living with the mummifying corpses of relatives. My other son appears, so I tell him about it; he also leaves. I am a fount of horrifying death facts and my family are loving it (they aren’t). From Here to Eternity Friday
My week with death is up. Pinterest is now sending me emails entitled “Post-mortem photography you might like”, so it’s probably a blessing. Am I happier after a week of memento mori? Honestly, no. I’m still anxious and envious, enraged by wind instruments and bathing profligacy. Has it made me stop and think? Occasionally. Elizabeth Harper isn’t surprised WeCroak missed the mark. “An app that just texts you reminders that you’ll die doesn’t really set up any context for that reminder. In fact, what is checking your phone except for vanity? Who needs me? How important am I?”
I have also become more aware of the many small pleasures in my shallow, oblivious life: burritos, improbable animal friendships, baiting Jack Kerouac and schmaltzy hospital drama. A perpetual thrum of existential dread would sap my enjoyment of this stuff, as Nigella so wisely said. “Everything in life is a bit of a balancing trick,” she also said and I’m not giving up on that balance just yet. I will continue to embrace WeCroak’s digital whisper of doom. Nothing in life is certain but death and mildewed towels, so I might as well get comfortable with both of them.