Memento mori: Confronting death to live well

I’m the kind of mom that makes my family visit cemeteries on vacation. We’ve read poems of famous poets at their graves. We’ve said prayers at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. We’ve taken pictures at Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s graves and traced our fingers over dates on tombstones in little out-of-the-way towns. And yes, we’ve sat with graves of those we’ve been intimately connected to, as friends or family.

It’s not that I am morbid. Visiting cemeteries, remembering stories of those I know and imagining the tales of those I did not, intensifies the contrast between me and those who lie beneath the dirt. It makes me feel alive.

By visiting cemeteries, I am teaching my children a centuries-old Christian tradition, memento mori. Borrowed by early Christians from the Greek Stoics, memento mori is simply translated from Latin as “remember you will die.”

Memento mori brings the refrain from Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” to our everyday life. These words served as spiritual instruction through medieval times to the Victorian era — for those who fought in battle, those who went to sea, women in childbirth and those experiencing the trials of everyday life.

We remember we will die, so that we will live — well.

In the last century, we’ve become removed from death. Death now often happens out of sight. To speak of death is taboo — so much so that grieving has become a private burden we carry alone.

And now, in the last year, death knocks at our door. Death, and our fear of it, has become a shared experience. We are terrified but we cannot hide. We cannot turn off the lights and pretend we are not home.

And for us Christians, if we really believe what we say we believe — why would we be frightened?

The spiritual practice of memento mori confronts death, until we no longer find it frightening. Some practice this discipline in prayer or by placing a skull in a place of prominence as a reminder. For my family, our walks among graves serve as this discipline. We remember that one day we will die, and in doing so, we embrace life.

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The spiritual practice of memento mori forces us to ask this question every day. In answering it, we begin to live more intentionally. We think about where we spend our time, our resources, our energy. Doing good work at our job or in the home takes on a new importance, as does sharing our love with those around us.

The spiritual practice of memento mori challenges us to look at each day before us as a gift — one we don’t want to waste. We live each day to its fullest, for it may be our last. 

We only have today. It’s all we ever had.

Northwest Catholic - November 2020

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