Author’s note: Are you contemplating taking your own life? – Please call or text 988 before you do anything else! There is always hope and always a better life just around the corner! You are not alone.

Death is a Part of Our Fallen Reality

Human beings are no stranger to death, but the plan was not so from the beginning. Our first parents were created in a state of original justice, walking hand in hand, so to speak, with God. After the first sin, evil entered the world. Our nature was tainted by the inclination to do wrong and offend God. Our relationship with Him was changed. And death entered our reality.

However, God did not leave us abandoned to our sin. In fact, death itself was both punishment and salvation. Anyone who has watched a vampire movie knows the curse of immortal life in this vale of tears. And those who watch zombie movies see bodies with souls and ghost movies show us souls with bodies. Again, all these examples show the futility of being trapped in the earthly realm of suffering. 

Our relationship with death is complicated. We rightly grieve when a loved one dies, and we naturally have an aversion to the thought of our own death. Sometimes, in despair, we might have suicidal ideation due to a traumatic event or mental illness. Think of the fictional character Hamlet weighing this earthly life of suffering and the endless sleep of death: “To be, or not to be, that is the question…” Hamlet is even pictured in the play soliloquizing to a human skull, a profound symbol of memento mori.

The Greek philosopher Plato even wrote that philosophy itself is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” This was also a common theme of the philosophical school of thought known as stoicism which meditated on death often. In another play by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, the praetorium guard whispers to the autocrat: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.”

What is Memento Mori?

It is this tradition of meditating on death that gives rise to the Christian exploration of death in the Memento Mori tradition and aesthetic. Memento Mori in Latin means: “Remember death.” It is the same call of Ash Wednesday: “Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust, thou shalt return.” Though seen by some as macabre, this philosophical and theological tradition is full of wisdom to live life well. 

If we live our life with the daily reminder that we are going to die one day, perhaps we will make better choices. Perhaps we will choose to pray more, to love more, to fully live more. We can think of how Moses prays in Psalm 90 that God might teach the people “to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).”

Our life on earth is short and fleeting. As Isaiah says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass (Is. 40:7).”

What to Make of Memento Mori?

When the ancient pagans meditated on death, there were several who took this as an invitation to party. The ancient Romans even had a phrase for this mindset: nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink). The Christian tradition’s meditation on death, of course, does not bear the same weight. In fact, the Christian notion does not motivate us to throw caution to the wind and embrace the mid-2000s notion of Y.O.L.O. (you only live once). Instead, we are called to meditate on our last end and act accordingly in the present.

How to Meditate on Death – The Four Last Things

The Scriptures teach us: “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin (Sirach 7:40).” Death does not pity anyone and it comes for everyone. Life is short and shortly it will end. 

In the end, we die. This is the first of the last four things. Our death is our soul’s separation from our body. It is a consequence of evil and original sin. However, death is a grace, in God’s timing and providence, because it ends our toiling in the valley of tears and draws us to Himself. 

Upon our death, our soul appears from Jesus Christ, the Judge, who commends our soul to Heaven or condemns us to Hell. The particular judgment of our soul is the second of the last things, and Heaven and Hell are the third and fourth.

We are not so much damned as to say we damn ourselves by our actions here on earth. If we are in a state of unrepentant mortal sin upon our death, we will be judged to Hell, but the choice is ours. God loves us immeasurably and desires our salvation. He wants us to be in Heaven with HIm for all eternity, but will not force His love on anyone. 

If there are any vestiges of venial sin on our soul or attachments to sin, then we may need a “time” of purification in Purgatory, for nothing unclean can enter Heaven. Then, at the end, comes the General Judgment and the resurrection of our body. With the establishment of the new Heaven and new Earth, with our newly reunited to our soul resurrected bodies, we enjoy eternal life or punishment. 

Do Not Despair

Death comes to all, much like taxes. The answer is what are we going to do about it? We can run from it, but it will chase us to the tune of the ticking of the clock. By embracing the memento mori tradition, we are embracing living a life of grace here and now and persevering in cooperating with God’s grace. 

Do not despair at death. Instead, live out the call to holiness today.

See, my children, some people pass their whole life without thinking of death. It comes, and behold! they have nothing; faith, hope, and love, all are already dead within them. When death shall come upon us, of what use will three-quarters of our life have been to us? With what are we occupied the greatest part of our time? Are we thinking of the good God, of our salvation, of our soul? O my children! what folly is the world! We come into it, we go out of it, without knowing why. The good God places us in it to serve Him, to try if we will love Him and be faithful to His law; and after this short moment of trial, He promises us a recompense. Is it not just that He should reward the faithful servant and punish the wicked one? Should the Trappist, who has passed his life in lamenting and weeping over his sins, be treated the same as the bad Christian, who has lived in abundance in the midst of all the enjoyments of life? No; certainly not. We are on earth not to enjoy its pleasures, but to labor for our salvation. Let us prepare ourselves for death; we have not a minute to lose: it will come upon us at the moment when we least expect it; it will take us by surprise. Look at the saints, my children, who were pure; they were always trembling, they pined away with fear; and we, who so often offend the good God–we have no fears. Life is given us that we may learn to die well, and we never think of it. 

– St. John Vianney
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