It may be counter-intuitive, but an awareness of our death can make us better people.
This is why Catholics have a practice known as memento mori, which is a Latin phrase translating to “remember death.” This isn’t meant to serve as some morbid and macabre exercise or a type of nihilistic negation of life. Rather, it’s to remind us that one day we will die so that we can live better today.
Similar to when we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday and are told that we are dust and to dust we shall return, memento mori encourages us to embrace God’s mercy every day we are blessed to be alive. It helps us remember that what we do in this life before we die is of eternal and lasting importance.
This pandemic has given all of us more opportunity to remember death — for many, it appears closer than ever. Whether we fear for our own lives, those of our loved ones, or our fellow humans all over the globe, this current pandemic has reminded us that one day we will die.
Sister Theresa Aletheia, affectionately known as the “death nun,” has written and Tweeted about the value of memento mori. She draws on the wisdom of saints like St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Ignatius of Loyola to encourage us to remember often that one day we’ll be dead.
We can embrace a form of memento mori in a number of ways. We can meditate on our death; we can place a reminder of our mortality near our bed (Sister Theresa actually has a skull on her desk for this reason); or we can read accounts of other people’s deaths and imagine our own judgment before God. Whatever we choose to do, the goal is to encourage us to live as if today is our last day — because it very well could be.
Sister Theresa offers a few insights about how we as Christians can respond to our mortality and the fear it can cause. For one, having faith in the midst of our mortality does not mean we are not going to experience fear. Fearing things, people, or events that can harm us and our loved ones — such as the current pandemic — is natural and healthy. Fear allows us to respond in appropriate ways to protect ourselves and others.
Embracing our mortality is also not a blithe disregard for the safety of ourselves or others and a nihilistic recklessness. Rather, it’s to accept our fear and respond accordingly to keep ourselves and others safe — all while embracing faith in the One who has overcome death.
While we can rightfully be fearful, we are still called to live with courage and trust. Especially today, it’s important that we don’t let fear and our realization of our mortality keep us from loving others or caring for others due to excessive self-interest or neuroticism. While our health and safety are important, by remembering death we recall that our life is a gift from God — something not to be hoarded — and that we are to share it with others out of love.
Memento mori also reminds us that living for the next life does not mean refusing to live in this one. On the contrary, we are enabled to live more fully today precisely because we trust that we are loved by God and that death doesn’t have the last word. We are freed from needing to grasp at life in selfish or small-hearted ways. By recalling the love God has for us in overcoming death, we are instead inspired to serve others in the here-and-now through acts of service and prayer.
Ultimately, memento mori is a valuable practice that prevents us from forgetting that each and every day is a gift to cherish with faith, joy, and hope. It’s a reminder that, while death will fall upon all of us sooner or later, it will not be the end of our story.