'Don’t Forget, You’re Going to Die': What Makes a New Death App So Popular?

The developers of WeCroak promise to minimize the indignation over the driver that cuts you off, the endless line at the post office or the fight with your spouse – or at least put them into proportion

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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An illustration of a smartphone with skull
An illustration of a smartphone with skullCredit: Getty Images IL
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

“Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” says the morbid text message I get as I’m running to catch the train to the university. The message isn’t meant to surprise me; it’s coming from an app called WeCroak, which I installed on my smartphone a few days earlier. Still, I do get an uncomfortable feeling. Indeed, I am not immortal. Thanks for the reminder.

The message is part of a new app that’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying: In order to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The app, which is available for the iPhone (and will soon be released for Android), sends identical reminders about our mortality five times a day at irregular intervals. If you want, you can open the message and read a quote connected to death from an author, poet or philosopher. According to WeCroak’s website, the app encourages users “to take one moment for contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation We find that a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor things that do.”

As strange as this sounds, it’s merely the latest addition to a seemingly endless wave of apps promoting meditation and mindfulness. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, there are more than 1,000 apps aimed at helping users set aside their phones, breathe deeply and “enjoy the moment.” For instance, the app Headspace, which provides meditation sessions, has been downloaded by more than 18 million people.

Still, there’s a significant difference between apps whose only role is to make us conscious of death and those focused on deep breathing or – ironically enough – the need to disconnect from technology. In that respect it would be more accurate to describe WeCroak as part of the “death positivity” movement that seeks to change the discourse about death in the United States.

According to Pia Interlandi, one of the movement’s leaders, adopting a positive attitude toward death doesn’t mean that “death is fun, let’s party.” Death is always traumatic and difficult, she says, but the progressive death movement seeks to change the discussion and understand the beauty, significance and depth that death gives to life.

Similarly, the developers behind WeCroak believe that we can all benefit from daily reminders of the fact that our time on earth is limited and of unknown duration. Surprisingly, the app is the brainchild of relatively young people – Ian Thomas, a 27-year-old freelance app developer, and Hansa Bergwall, a 35-year-old publicist. The two met when Thomas rented a room in Bergwall’s home through Airbnb and they found themselves talking for hours about artificial intelligence, the increasing dependence on technology and Americans’ petrifying fear of death.

In late July, six weeks after they met, WeCroak debuted on Apple’s App Store, and by December it was ranked one of the 10 most popular apps in the health and fitness category.

Why would users download an app that reminds about death on a daily basis? Apparently quotes like “the drum of death is being beaten” can minimize the indignation over the driver that cuts you off, the endless line at the post office or the fight with your spouse – or at least put them into proportion.

Daily life and our smartphone addiction will continue to irritate us, but it could be that a new habit of stopping everything to contemplate death for a moment, morning, noon and night, will help us develop gratitude for the things that make life precious.

And if not, you can always silence the app, delete it or simply learn to ignore it, just like we’ve learned to ignore the existence of death itself.

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