by Katherine Willis Pershey

Katherine Willis Pershey is a minister in Western Springs, Illinois. In addition to writing a personal blog, she is a contributor to the Christian Century, a storyteller for A Deeper Family, and the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.


Memento mori

Everybody dies. You know this. You’ve mourned. You’ve anticipated more grief. You’ve even pondered your own passing.

When this fact infiltrates the defenses I’ve subconsciously erected to avoid considering my own mortality, I feel an odd swell of emotions. There’s some fear, but not much. My faith invites me to trust God in the face of uncertainty.

There is nothing more uncertain than death, except, of course, that it will most certainly happen. But we don’t know when (mercifully) and we don’t know how (again, mercifully), and we don’t know – well, you know what we don’t know.

It’s enough to make me feel a bit dumb. Since I don’t let my children say that word, let me rephrase: it’s enough to make me feel humbled.

We do a lot to avoid thinking about death. We secret it away in hospitals, we scroll through Facebook, we smear ourselves with wrinkle creams.

But death cannot be avoided. Death cannot be outsmarted. Even those of us who have been captivated by the astonishing story of a loving God who vanquishes death will, sooner or later, breathe our last. As a pastor, I have commended many a soul to the everlasting care of God.

There is an ancient Latin phrase: memento mori. It means “remember you will die.” The reminder has been woven into Christian music, liturgy, and art. The most famous artifacts of the memento mori tradition are paintings and sculptures of human skulls.

I used to believe that these skulls were morbid, and I suppose that I still do believe this. But frank reminders of death are invaluable. Everybody dies, and therefore everybody has some critical choices to make about how we shall live.

Having the courage to contemplate death frees us to fully embrace the gift of life.

My favorite Mary Oliver poem ends with a stirring memento mori: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Tell me.

Who will you love?
Who will you serve?
What will you do on Sunday afternoons?
What will you make?
What will you give away?
Who will you forgive?
How will you speak to cashiers?
How will you speak to the ones you love?
Where will you go?
What will you eat and drink?
What will you win, and what will you lose?
What will you waste, and what will you save?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Or better yet: just go live it.

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