The other day, I was sitting on a park bench at the playground with my son, agonizing over a work issue. Had I come off as rude on that Zoom call? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so emphatic. I pulled out my phone to send a quick apology. Just then, a notification popped on my screen:
Don’t forget, you’re going to die.
I stared at it for a second, jarred.
Don’t forget, you’re going to die.
I suddenly didn’t care as much about that Zoom call. So 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.
This grim notification on my phone is WeCroak, an app that reminds you five times a day that, well, you’re going to die. As the app’s website declares, the mission is to “find happiness by contemplating your mortality.”
The idea that contemplating your mortality will help your life is not a new one. “A lot of religious and philosophical traditions have insisted that in order to live a full life, we have to come explicitly and consciously to terms with the fact that we won’t be here forever.” says Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist and one of the authors of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. In Buddhism, this practice is called Maranasati, the contemplation of death. For Nikki Mirghafori, a technologist and Buddhist teacher from Palo Alto, California, death contemplation has many advantages. “Number one is aligning our lives with our values,” Mirghafori said in a podcast interview in August. Other benefits include greater awakening, more freedom (both in life and at the time of death), less wasted time, and increased kindness and gratitude. “If we have made peace with our own mortality, we can be fully spaciously present.”
As long as the internet has existed, so too have mortality reminders. You can find the day you’re going to die at Death Clock, which has been predicting death dates since 2006. There’s Life Clock, an app that counts down to your estimated death and lets you know when you’re engaging in activities that might reduce your life span. There’s Tikker, a watch that displays the time you have left. And of course, WeCroak, a simple but elegant app that reminds you five times a day that you’re going to die and displays a quote on death.
We spend our lives on our phones; it makes sense that we should contemplate mortality there as well. Well, sort of. “It’s right-minded but apt to have unintended and generally deleterious consequences.” The problem, according to Solomon, is that we’re not contemplating it. “The monks were sitting in an empty room all day with an empty desk, where staring at a skull surely kept the idea of one’s transient nature very much in mind. The difference is when you get the alert on your phone, it’s apt to be a very fleeting reminder of death.”
Mirghafori says that’s OK. Not only is she an enthusiastic WeCroak user, 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 cocreator of WeCroak, says he’s never gotten a complaint from the 130,000 people who have downloaded the app and the 80,000 who are active users. Instead, he’s gotten countless positive stories: a daughter cherishing her last moments with her mother, a young professional overcoming a 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 death contemplation practice. “People aren’t going to try this unless they really want it,” he says. “It’s not something you accidentally download on your phone.”