Cemetery

Memento mori

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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.

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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Comments

  1. I think we have underrated the concept of death! Who knows, it may turn out to be a long vivid holiday. But then, we are more comfortable with life and deject death probably because we met. The secrecy and stigma attached with the concept of death makes us skeptic. I guess we need to be little more hopeful :)

  2. I have often wondered if our avoidance of all things death related makes it so much harder to deal with death when it comes. Then, as I’ve learned of other cultures who integrate the concept of death into their daily living and seem to accept it as a natural part of life I wonder how they do it and why we, as present day Americans, can’t seem to. Death didn’t use to frighten me much. Then I had kids and the thought of their death, or mine or my husband’s while they are still little frightens me more than I’d like to admit.

    • Yes, yes, yes.

      Death itself does not frighten me nearly as much as tragedy, grief, and loss, especially when it comes to my children. I had deep anxiety about that when I first became a mother, and it still comes in waves.

  3. There’s a wonderful zen meditation where you contemplate your own skull half buried in dirt and covered with leaves. It’s powerful and a beautiful reminder that death will come for us all. I want to live a life that lets me greet death like an old friend. Full and beautiful and vital and saturated with love. I’m working on it. :)

  4. What a compelling piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. I’ve had the privilege of being present at the passing of one person. She was an elderly lady at our church, but full of spunk. She once walked the whole 2 miles to our church just a couple months after a full hip replacement because her doctor told her “a little walking was good for her”. That was her idea of a little walk. She’d worked as a missionary and still did Bible translating for her people group well into her 80’s. Now, I was home from college and she was very ill. I went to visit her and the nurse told me it wouldn’t be long. She had no family, so I asked to be called if she went downhill in the night. She did. I sat next to her at 2am as she took her final breath and in that moment, I *knew* that this beautiful woman who, on this side, was only attended by her little 20 year old friend was being greeted by a host of saints on the other side and by her savior who she loved and served so long. And death has always felt less scary to me since then.

  6. Love what you wrote here: Having the courage to contemplate death frees us to fully embrace the gift of life.

    A life coach once asked me to picture my funeral service and to imagine how I would be remembered. His request was a thought-provoking exercise similar to your post. Once I realized I had the freedom and ability to change and the possibilities that it offered for a much richer life, I took the leap.

    Life is a gift, and what we do with it matters greatly, not just for ourselves, but for everyone we come into contact with, from our most beloved family members to people with whom we will meet briefly, and only once.

    What do I plan to do? To do my best to live like I am dying, to remember that life and time is precious, and to use gratitude as a filter to help me see things in their true light.

  7. Love this reminder. In another perspective, I think it’s so important to help children to process death as well – maybe not contemplate their own death, but to have a concept of what it means and what it looks like. Our amazing preschool always had a gaggle of bugs and critters around and the children exerienced and talked about death – bug funerals were not uncommon. Sometimes that leads to uncomfortable conversations in the car (“Mom, will you be sad when I die?”), but let’s talk about it! They need words and concrete examples to understand what death looks like and how we process death… so that when death is later accompanied by grief, it’s not a totally new concept and we can work through the grief – which is the harder thing.

    There’s a great quote from Bev Bos: “One of the most important things I have learned from having experienced difficult times is that songs, books, and stories, that will help people cope with death must be in their lives BEFORE they experience grief and loss.”

    • Sometimes I’m startled by how frank my daughter is about death. A bird died in our neighbor’s yard and I had the instinct to shield her from it, but she saw it anyway, and it kicked off some really amazing conversations. I think you’re right.

  8. We all have an appointment with death and meeting the Creator/Savior..

    We are just travelers here in this temporary home of earth.

    We cannot take anything with us, so make deposits into your heavenly home while here.

  9. I have stage IV colon cancer. While my scans are clear at the moment, most stage IV patients only live 5 years. I’m down 2 already so death and dying is on my mind daily. I have a lot of worries, mostly about my children. This is beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Thank you for these action-provoking words.

  11. I became a Hospice Nurse less than a year ago, and I have never felt so in awe of life and so compelled to live fully and authentically. Living daily in the presence of death has given me this gift.

    • Have you read “Final Gifts?” It’s written by two hospice nurses, and was one of the most powerful books I read while I was in seminary. Bless you for doing such good, hard work.

      • Thank you and yes, I have read Final Gifts. It is most certainly an inspiring book. Thank you for writing this thoughtful and important piece. Blessings!

  12. When I saw the subject title for this post I read it as memento mori photos in my mind. If you haven’t ever looked at any of these old photos, I suggest that you do. They are a fascinating look at how people of the past remembered their loved ones. Pinterest has memento mori boards, there are some very beautiful(and chilling) photographs.

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