Memento mori

I’d like to have my papers in order when I die. It’s about sparing my loved ones, of course. (Or is it actually to tidy me up? Didn’t our mothers say you should change your underwear, just in case you landed in an accident?) So I’ve been making periodic stabs this year at the journals, files, boxes of research, projects in their various stages. I got rid of that pile of index cards on which I traced the chronology of a man about whom I was tempted to write a biography (a better one than existed, I mean). I dumped a few folders of articles I’d clipped that, seriously, I will never use. I transcribed a year of diary.

Alexander Nevsky Monastery cemetery, St. Petersburg

Lately, the call to review and pare seems urgent. But sometimes I’ll be struck by the fear that thinking about death and acting in this anticipatory way is some kind of signal that it’s just around the corner.

At a rational level, I know the notion that thinking about death will make it happen simply isn’t true! Still, my death is coming, and closer now than twenty years ago. And as much as it scares me, I can’t run away from the thought but have to keep thinking it, once a day for sure, that I will die. Memento mori, I need to tell myself. Remember you will die.

Once I push past my instinctive resistance, it’s rewarding, actually, because thinking about death is a door: it opens to further thoughts — of my relationships and faith and what I love about living and what I’m grateful for and also what I know about dying, that it’s a seed from which the resurrection springs.

If thinking about death also triggers practical actions like personal directives or culling the detritus, it’s a good thing. If it has me saying what Chaplain Rob Ruff called “the most important words to the most important people in your life: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you,” that’s even better.

One of the graves in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery cemetery.

10 thoughts on “Memento mori

  1. I like what Henri Nouwen says about death:

    Death is a passage to new life. That sounds very beautiful, but few of us desire to make this passage. It might be helpful to realise that our final passage is preceded by many earlier passages. When we are born we make a passage from life in the womb to life in the family. When we go to school we make a passage from life in the family to life in the larger community. When we get married we make a passage from a life with many options to a life committed to one person. When we retire we make a passage from a life of clearly defined work to a life asking for new creativity and wisdom.

    Each of these passages is a death leading to new life. When we live these passages well, we are becoming more prepared for our final passage.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard. By “ending,” I’m not sure if you mean last sentence or last photo — but speaking of the latter, couldn’t resist, the stone guy looks downright cheerful about it all!

  2. Thanks for this powerful reminder of something we all naturally prefer not to think about.

    Nothing clears out an American audience faster than the word “death.” And yet all the spiritual teachers point us in the momento mori direction. “Remember that you are not the center of the universe but, to use Benedict’s words, ‘keep death daily before your eyes.’ – Kathleen Norris, “The Cloister Walk”

    Earlier this year I claimed this personal mission on my website: “To prepare for the hour of my death one good day at a time.” I don’t always live up to this thought, but I try. Death puts everything else into perspective. And reminds us to be grateful for the many, many gifts of the present moment.

    • I’m so glad you commented, Shirley, because I was remembering your mission statement and had actually thought to quote it and then somehow it slipped away. I find this a courageous statement in some ways, precisely because stating the death thing so explicitly is not, as, you say, popular. I hope you won’t mind if some of us borrow it for ourselves, or a version thereof.

    • I’ve been thinking about the connection you’re making here, and how it was made for you and has motivated you. Although I’ve certainly felt open to the possibility, I don’t find myself at the memoir writing point yet. Unless it was a small thematic piece of it (which I guess a lot of memoir is nowadays.) Perhaps you’ve described this in a blog post at some point, but I’d be curious whether the decision to write a memoir was a gradual one for you or was it more eureka-like?
      Thanks for the link; good piece.

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