I like to tell my less religious friends that Catholics are the OG-goths.
They usually laugh in my face, but then I encourage them to really think about it for a minute. We’ve got the all-black outfits for priests, we take the body parts of deceased holy people very seriously, we use incense liberally, and we’re really, really into death.
That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true. For Catholics, a healthy focus on death is what helps us to live.
You might be familiar with the Mexican feast, Día de los Muertos. It’s a celebration of death and life held each year on November 1, though celebrations usually start on Halloween and go through the second. But it’s not a Halloween party — it’s a celebration and an honoring of those who have died. Skulls are painted with gorgeous, bright floral arrangements or crafted from sugar for eating, ofrendas or altars are created to honor dead loved ones, and skeletons — mostly skulls — are everywhere. It’s the best reference point for what it means for a person to have a healthy attachment toward death that helps them live.
In the Catholic tradition, there’s a concept called memento mori that translates literally to “remember your death.” The concept is mostly represented in art or physical objects that literally remind the viewer that he or she is going to die. It might seem a little, well… morbid.
And it is. But here’s the thing: when it’s placed in the proper context, memento mori isn’t about fear or pain. It’s about hope.
There’s an atheist-turned-nun with a pretty popular Twitter following who might be the best example out there of how to remember your death. Her name is Sr. Theresa Aletheia FSP, and her memento mori journey began when she made the decision to place a skull on her desk for a year. She explains why remembering your death matters so much by saying, “The practice of remembering that you will die helps you to keep in mind that your life will end, and that it has a goal: heaven.”
And I can’t put it any more simply — or clearly — than that. Putting the inevitability of death at the front of your mind, within the context of the Catholic belief in the afterlife, helps us to remember the purpose of life — and center ourselves, our priorities, and the sheer gravity of every single moment we’re given.
It’s not so much about a “live like you’re dying” mentality, or some trite idea of making the most of every chance to be your best self. Truly remembering your death means confronting it head-on, coming to grips with the reality of the shortness and fragility of life — and experiencing a deep sense of gratitude, resolve, and realism toward what you hope to accomplish and why it matters.
For some people, like Sister Theresa, the best way to practice memento mori is with physical art, pieces that bring the representation of death to the forefront. Those are certainly impactful, but for me, what’s most important is having a real and honest view of and exposure to death.
It’s not hard — death is all around us. Throughout just this past year, several close friends have experienced losses, from miscarriage to stillbirth to the death of a loved one. The temptation might be to put these deaths in a box — to tuck them away, not talk about them, pretend they didn’t happen. We may do this to spare the feelings of those around us, or to hide our own discomfort and deep pain.
Instead, though, I have found hope by embracing loss when it happens — to face it head-on, to truly face the reality and the ugliness of death. And when I lost my grandma to ALS, the temptation was to walk away from that community completely so I wouldn’t have to think about it or hear the voice of ALS or see the pain that comes with it. But instead, I choose to keep myself close to this community — to not let myself forget the raw pain and suffering that people with ALS experience.
Why put myself through this? Why focus on what so many would much rather simply move past? Because this pain — this recognition of a deep longing within us and an acceptance of the inevitability of its embrace for each of us — makes me more human. It helps me love my friends who are grieving — to truly know their hearts and be with them, rather than pity them.
And it reminds me to live. I see the ugly truth of death — I know that it will come to face me one day as it has so many I love, and I resolve to live my life in a way that means I’ll be ready when that end comes for me. It reminds me to cling to the only thing that matters — Christ’s redemptive love for us that wipes away all tears, and to become part of the suffering of His cross along with all of humankind.
Quite simply: remembering death is what spurs me to live fully.