Medically speaking, it's the time when our hearts stop beating and can no longer support all our organs. It's the time when the body literally switches off and says goodbye to this world. We stop living; there's no more waking up every morning, spending time with family, going to work, and having fun. From the philosophical point of view and the view of the Abrahamic faiths, death is the time when the soul departs from the body. It's the time when God says "time's up", and our test in this world is finally over. It's when we officially embark on the journey to the next world in order to return to the One who gave us life. "How do you deny Allah, and you were dead and He gave you life? Again He will cause you to die and again bring you to life, then you shall be brought back to Him." (2:28)
Almost every day we hear tragic news reports about deaths which have occurred due to freak accidents, murders, old age, illness, or numerous other natural causes. We say: "To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return" (2:156), but let's face it, how many of us actually wholeheartedly believe that we are going to return to our Lord? While we appear to formally acknowledge death, we have become somewhat immune to this reality, and instead, we subconsciously believe that we are eternal beings.
The reason why we are encouraged to be steadfast in the remembrance of our death is because it is directly related with our fear of Allah, and remembering that there is an afterlife reinforces the idea that we are mortal beings. On the spectrum of Muslims who falter when it comes to remembering death, we have two main categories: 1) Those who completely disregard the laws of Halal and Haram as defined by Islam, and 2) those who do follow most of the Islamic laws, yet stumble when it comes to "perfecting" our Islamic practice and etiquette.
The first group of people knowingly and openly commit forbidden acts, while having little if any concern for obeying the commands of Allah. The main reason for such Muslims is that they are surrounded by drugs, alcohol, cheating, gambling, illegitimate relationships, disrespecting parents, and broken families in the society we live in, and they decide to jump on the bandwagon.
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said: "He who sells his next life for his present life in this world loses both of them."
As described by our Imam, this first group of people "sell" their next life by completely detaching themselves from the reality that they will be held accountable for what they do. The Holy Qur'an has warned us against being misled by the societies we live in: "Let not the strutting about of the Unbelievers through the land deceive you. Little is it for enjoyment: Their ultimate abode is Hell. What an evil bed (to lie on)!" (3:196-197)
The second group of people are those who make up the majority of the Muslim population. We're the children who eat Halal food but lie to our parents. We're the teenagers who pray on time, but when we're around friends, we skip all religious activities and loosen up on both social and physical forms of Hijab. We're the adults who posses a wide range of religious knowledge and attend mosque every week, yet would rather pay for a holiday halfway across the world when Hajj is still obligatory on us. We're the parents who raise our children saying, "Everything you do must be to seek nearness to Allah", but when it comes to their marriages, we consider superficial things such as wealth and status to be superior to piety and religious practice of their spouses. We're the grandparents who always gave our grandchildren religious classes, but while celebrating their weddings, we'll figure out some way to commit Haram in the name of "fun".
In this second category of believers, the reason why we fulfill most obligatory acts yet are not concerned with doing complete justice to our faith is because we are not entirely fearful of death and Allah. We think, "Oh, it's not that bad...it's not as though we do Haram every day." We forget the saying of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny): "Do not look at the minuteness of the sin; rather, look Whom you have sinned against."
So now that we've acknowledged how forgetfulness of death causes us to indulge in the temporary and forbidden pleasures of this world, it's essential for us to bear death in mind in order for us to remain fearful of Allah and to become better people.
Some may find this a bit peculiar, and others may label this as slightly psychotic. However, consider the following practices: sitting in an empty grave for 5 minutes; visiting graveyards; looking at photographs of deceased loved ones; reading the verse of the Holy Qur'an which speak of death; and visiting a dying person. In essence, putting ourselves in such mental and physical environments which remind us of death can be extremely beneficial towards redefining our goals and purpose in this world. It is narrated that as he grew older, one of the four special deputies of the Twelfth Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) would sit in a grave and recite one-thirtieth of the Holy Qur'an every single day!
A popular company once arranged for a compulsory mock funeral for all of its employees, in which the friends and families of the "deceased" person were invited to mourn over his/her mock death. Data collected from the mock funeral participants indicated that the employees had become much more determined people which, as a result, profited the company. The families and friends of the employees also disclosed that the mock funeral had transformed their loved ones into much more forgiving, caring, and sincere people, who were concerned about how much good they could do to this world before they died. The employees achieved all this simply because they were reminded of their deaths.
In our capitalist, materialistic society, everyone is concerned with investments and future returns. People have become so absorbed with planning ahead that it's quite normal to find grandparents planning for the education of their unborn grandchildren. So it makes absolutely no sense that we knowingly fail to pre-plan our position in the afterlife, and that we pretend we will be able to escape death and will not have to recompense for our deeds in this world. Remembrance of death will help us fear our Lord. And fearing our Lord will ultimately help us attain heaven in the afterlife: "…for those who fear their Lord are Gardens with rivers flowing beneath; therein are they to dwell (forever), a gift from the presence of Allah; and that which is in the presence of Allah is the best (bliss) for the righteous." (3:198)