Outing Death

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I was hauling my wheelie toward the boarding gate for a New York-bound flight when an alert popped up on my iPhone. Its message was terse: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”

I was rattled, weirdly clammy, but finally resigned.

I had, after all, signed on for this sobering reminder, parting with 99 cents for WeCroak, a jaunty little app devised to notify users like me, five times a day at seemingly random intervals, that try as we may to ignore it, there will be no dodging The End.

That message is chilling, for sure. But for me, at the outset at least, it was bracing, an invitation more compelling than any raft of resolutions to seize the moment and run with it.

For Hansa Bergwall, that’s the point. Mr. Bergwall, a 35-year-old publicist in Brooklyn, founded WeCroak last year with Ian Thomas, 27, a freelance app developer.

The WeCroak app sends its users alternately somber and uplifting homilies several times a day.

WeCroak, Mr. Bergwall said, was born of Bhutanese folklore saying that to be happy, one ought to contemplate death five times a day. For the more than 9,000 users of WeCroak, most in their 20s and 30s, he said, there is no time like the moment to get a grip on life by embracing mortality.

Hovering near the top of the App Store’s paid health and fitness chart, the app, which I first read about in The Atlantic, is an exhortation to mindfulness. “Meditation urges you to focus on your breath,” Mr. Bergwall said. “It’s the same thing with remembering that you’re mortal. You forget, so you need something strong, someone telling you straight out, being blunt about it.”

That very bluntness is a provocation. Death until recently was often a conversational taboo, dark fodder for goth sites, maybe, but otherwise invoked discreetly, if at all, in spirit-soothing euphemisms.

Now it’s trending.

The app, on iOS and Android, could not be simpler. Ad-free, it is there strictly to remind you that the end is near, its message accompanied by alternately somber and uplifting homilies: “The grave has no sunny corners” or, more motivating, “Begin again the story of your life.” The words come from a variety of sources, including work by Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Pablo Neruda, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

It is but the latest in a flurry of pop culture death fare that is finding a receptive audience: “Coco,” Pixar’s animated feature about a boy exploring the land of the dead, and “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” a quirky housekeeping primer encouraging the reader to tidy up while there’s still time, have struck a chord with audiences. The book “Death, a Graveside Companion,” by Joanna Ebenstein, dense with death-related imagery, may not be sweeping the marketplace, but it sends a strong signal just the same.

A decade ago, Ms. Ebenstein started a blog about death and bereavement called Morbid Anatomy. Sensing that the subject, long hushed, might put off her readers — and her employers at Scholastic magazine, where she worked at the time — she was reluctant to sign her posts, using only her initials.

“Now people are responding,” said Ms. Ebenstein, who is also the founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn (now defunct). “They think the discussion is cool, part of a cultural movement to explore the shadow side.” This is especially true, she noted, among young people trying to connect with their spiritual selves.

An older generation may well be resistant to the outing of death. Boomers especially are attached to the notion that they are their own entrepreneurs, running their bodies like corporations. “Their idea is to give death the slip, “ said Tracy Morgan, a psychoanalyst in New York. “Things may be spinning out of control, but it’s, ‘I’m eating well, I’m exercising, I’m so damned virtuous, I can do things to my face, I can control my fertility. I’ll survive.’”

“If you’re the master of death, you’re the ultimate entrepreneur,” said Ms. Morgan, who recently downloaded WeCroak herself.

This current fascination may attest as well to a saturnine swing in the sociopolitical consciousness.

“It seems to me that the apocalyptic sensibility of the late 1990s going into the 2000s has continued,” said Lucio Benedetto, a historian who teaches philosophy at the Hockaday School, a private school for girls in Dallas. “There is this great fear of things coming to an end, a fear of what some people consider to be the demise of traditional American values,” supplanted, he said, by developments like the rise of the alt-right and a perceptible thinning of the blue-collar class.

“In television dramas like ‘The Walking Dead,’ dystopia seems to be this constant theme,” Mr. Benedetto said. “It’s like you’re not just reading a Philip K. Dick novel but actually living it.”

When Mr. Benedetto asked his students to download the app, he got little resistance. Some were just curious, while others found it useful to assimilate the concept of finality into their thinking. “Few of these students seemed aware that people are dying around them,” he said. “Most of them don’t even know we’re at war.”

For users like me, WeCroak alerts have become routine enough to ignore, at worst a gnat-like irritant.

“I wanted it to scare me more, to jolt me into sort of tripping the light fantastic,” Ms. Morgan said. “That’s not happening.”

Her complaint is in line with those of users requesting more somber or harrowing quotations to accompany the central message. Mr. Thomas, who wrote code for the app, finds himself fielding requests for bleaker, grittier messages. “So far, the quotes are rather tame and contemplative,” one user complained. “I thought they’d be more hard-hitting.”

Yet confronting even a sweet-talking reaper can foster a kind of self-mastery. Karen Rosenberg, 50, a corporate recruiter in Miami, finds WeCroak’s daily alerts liberating. “I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can wash dishes with a smile. I can talk on the phone,’ knowing all the while that this life is not a dress rehearsal,” she said. “It helps me enjoy the moment.”

Simon Arizpe, a 27-year-old artist in Brooklyn who makes pop-up books, had his first brush with death in a fire that raced through his office. “Being so close to mortality in such a surprising way was a rude awakening,” he said, one that was reinforced in a positive way by the app. “It helped me suddenly realize that, oh, nothing is precious. In a way, that’s kind of relaxing.”

When he downloaded the app, Mr. Arizpe got blowback from his friends. “Some of them were kind of disgusted,” he recalled. “They asked, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”

Challenged, he dug in his heels. “With so many stimuli coming at you, it’s nice to have something in your pocket that slows you down, lets you look at the big picture,” he said. “Besides, what could be more alluring than to break a taboo.”