Memento Mori

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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The single greatest spiritual liability of the modern era may be our so thoroughly removing death from view. While the greater portion of human history admits death’s undeniable presence and proximity, modern medicine—with complicated networks of assisted living centers, hospitals, and hospices—has inadvertently, but effectively, shuffled death far offstage. The result is that for most of us, for most of the time, death is well out of mind.

We needn’t blame ourselves, even so. Death is unseemly, unsettling. Death, frankly, is heartbreaking. Our Lord Jesus acknowledged this himself. Although we believe he was fully aware that his friend Lazarus would shortly return to the living, the grim facts of death and, one supposes, the immediate sorrow of Mary and Martha, led God himself to weep.

Regardless of the final outcome, death remains a dire severance. When a loved one dies, we weep.

The fact of death—and the effects of death—remind us of our own mortality, our own animality, the embarrassment of our own inevitable decay. Lazarus’ sisters knew well enough death’s indignities and asked that the stone not be rolled away: “Lord,” they pleaded, “by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”

To remedy our natural squeamishness, the church of Christ, from late antiquity to the late nineteenth century, has attempted a corrective, a tradition to cultivate what believers have long called “the memory of death.” In these latter days, the tradition is less universal; still, it has never fully disappeared, remaining a central fixture of the Eastern Church, in particular, as well as among most ascetical communities.

Meditating on a crucifix, an icon, the relic of a saint, or the burial place of another beloved departed, the believer practices bringing vividly to mind that life in general—as well as one’s own life—is fragile, brief, utterly dependent upon the continuous breath of God.

In Psalm 103, the Psalmist tells us: “The Lord remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he blossoms, until the wind passes over it, and it is gone.” And in Psalm 104, he praises God, saying “You open Your hand, [Your creatures] are filled with good. You hide Your face, they are troubled. You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”

Such a habit may seem curious to us now and, to some believers, even perverse. After all, Christ is the life of the world, having “undone death by death.” Why focus upon our inevitable dissolution and decay when the great promise of our faith is eventual resurrection?

I, of course, have no answer. Still, I have a guess. Most believers worldwide embrace the Lenten season itself as a memory of death. They do so for a variety of reasons. In part, to more fully apprehend their own sin, their own regrettable habits of importing “death to life.” In part to prepare for a more palpable sense of rebirth when Easter comes. And mostly, I suspect, to more fully bring to mind that the ultimate promise of life moved through one particular, heartbreakingly necessary death.

Most important is to bear in mind that just as death itself is not the end, neither is “the memory of death,” an end in itself. We lean into the reality of death to lean through it, to pass through it. And we cultivate an habitual awareness of death in order to take more seriously—perhaps even to use more responsibly—every single moment of our lives.