Memento mori is a phrase I first heard in Year 12 English studying Victorian poetry. A short few hundred years ago, it was a theme that pervaded cultural art and literature. It was a common acknowledgement, made daily in everyone’s life. It was represented in still-life paintings of skulls just chilling on kitchen tables under colourful bursts of floral bouquets. It was like the “Keep calm and carry on” motto of the Victorian era.
So what does momento mori mean?
Remember you must die.
On the surface, it’s pretty bleak. Why think about death when you’re alive? That seems like a waste of time. However, our phenomenal improvements in medical care, prolonging life and improving quality of life are yet to make us immortal. The fact that we all still die is something lots of people don’t want to come to full terms with. Some foolish part of us thinks that we will suddenly be able to just accept it when our hair turns grey and our hips give out and we order our dentures.
No, even if we are blessed to live that long, lots of birthdays won’t make us ready for death.
But memento mori can. Memento mori is not an attitude of living life in dread, but with hope and motivation to be better. Memento mori doesn’t mean “remember that you will die and be turned into worm food”. It doesn’t mean “remember that you will die so live it up and who cares how you act, it’s all gonna end”.
Memento mori means remember you must die. Few people have come back from death. There are some fascinating stories about people who were clinically dead and had a spiritual experience. Regardless of the eye witness accounts, many people don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead either. And they certainly don’t believe he ascended into the sky!
It’s funny how people can be so afraid of death but so unwilling to accept that there is more after it.
The great unknown is pretty well known.
God didn’t just give us a body and a soul then leave us with only the means to nourish the body. Though the body dies, the soul persists. The soul struggles through its own effects of sin, but it doesn’t “die” the way the body does. It suffers the separation of the body and soul through death – something we weren’t made for. What does this have to do with virtue?
Our response to memento mori – the response that won’t keep us up at night and make us a raging pessimist, is virtue.
Live a life of virtue in anticipation of death. Not out of fear of it but in preparation for it. Instead of letting it trap you into an existential pit of despair and anguish and fear, let it free you from bondage to earthly worries and objects. You may even find it helps you make decisions easier than before. It’s a lot easier to let go of the grudges, prestige, expectations and pressures on this world when you have your priorities focused on the next.
Elise is a 4th Year Medical student from rural NSW who enjoys a variety of sports and being outdoors. She also loves food but when it comes to cooking – she claims to burn water.