I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month and the main factor has been lingering illness. For several weeks I was plagued with unpleasant symptoms and diminished capacity. I’m pleased to have recovered enough to have something like a normal week, but I wanted to return to writing with something I reflected upon while sick. Memento Mori.
In art, religion and culture a memento mori is something that serves as a reminder of the reality of death. Throughout the ages, many people have used iconography, such as pictures of skeletal remains, or activities such as walking through a cemetery, to bring to the front of their minds the fact that they must someday confront death.
Anyone who takes life and spirituality seriously cannot ignore the brevity of earthly life and the imminence of bodily death. To invoke a reminder like a memento mori is to force ourselves to remember our mortal fragility and to make the most of our time on earth, which is oh so fleeting.
For me, being ill served as something as a memento mori. Falling ill does not come with the guarantee of recovery. While we have excellent healthcare in Australia and it’s easy to be melodramatic about one’s symptoms to the point that they seem more severe than they actually are (“man flu” anyone?), relatively young and healthy people can and do die suddenly in this country more often than we’d like to acknowledge. Sickness says, “Even if this isn’t the last struggle, one day this body will give out.” And in the context of eternity, that day is coming sooner than imaginable.
I don’t want to be morbid and obsessive when it comes to the topic of dying. But I think many Christians suffer from the same mental and social avoidance of the subject as our unbelieving neighbours do. If we’re good evangelicals, we talk a lot about the historical and spiritual significance of Jesus’ death: but it seems we are quite proficient at mentally and emotionally divorcing the reality of His death from the rapid approach of our own.
This ought to change. In my life and yours.
In my research recently I’ve revisited the connection between godliness and preparedness for death and eternity in Puritan thought and spirituality. It has been said of the Puritans that for them, “a holy death was . . . the culmination of a holy life.” Everything about life now had eternal realities in view and death was the inescapable passageway between this life and life evermore with God. Thus, dying well was recognised as an important component of the Christian life for many generations before us. And dying well is difficult if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding the subject.
Thomas Watson (the main subject of my research) said that one of the surest ways to grow in godliness was to “think of your short stay in the world.”He adds, “The serious thoughts of our short stay here would be a great means of promoting godliness. What if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out before God’s Spirit has breathed in? Whoever considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance.”
We are all in danger of failing to heed a warning like Watson’s. There are special seasons where thinking upon death comes more easily. The sudden death of a loved one. The death of someone “before their time.” A serious illness, injury or close encounter with the prospect of death. But next week will see most of us failing to have “serious thoughts” about the end of our lives for a number of reasons.
One is delusion. When the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to rebel against God, he assured Eve that, in contradiction to God’s clear Word: “You will not surely die.” Part of what allows us to live lives that don’t take death seriously, is to believe a form of this deception. Some days we can live (and sin!) as though we will never have to die. As though God’s Word in Hebrews 9:27 “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement”, isn’t a reality.
Some of us may fall for a slightly watered down version though, when tempted to go on living in ignorance of eternity and disobedience towards God. Satan may assure us “You will not surely die yet,” “You will not surely die anytime soon.”
A chilling example of this is when a friend of mine shared the gospel with a young man in the Brisbane CBD one weekend. The young man was dismissive and left without taking God’s Word to him about sin, salvation and eternity seriously. The youth in question participated in some risky behaviour later that night as part of the “planking” craze sweeping the world at the time. He fell to his death from a building only a few hours after failing to take heed to a message of life and death.
Christians may believe the gospel – but do we treat each day as though it could really be our last. Are we clinging to Jesus with the type of desperation that says we may need the gospel for our dying moments at any time?
Another thing that will stop us from serious consideration is distraction. We may recognise that we need to take death and eternity seriously and agree in principle that these realities should shape our daily lives. But there are just so many things that take our minds other places. So much that needs to be done. So many interesting things to engage the intellect. So many pleasures that beckon us to pursue them for a few minutes or hours instead of contemplating the end of life.
Finally, we can also be desensitised to some of the things that would normally serve as good memento mori to us. This is especially true of our repetitive exposure to death in news media. Every time we hear about a murder, traffic accident, terrorist attack, fatal disaster or other event resulting in the loss of human life, we should think about our own mortality and whether we’re prepared for eternity (see Luke 13 for Jesus’ take on this). But because we are constantly presented with strangers dying, we can’t seem to bear the emotional toll of always taking such news to heart and so we grow cooler (if not cold…if not callous) towards news of death unless it’s much closer to home.
How might we overcome delusion, distraction and desensitisation when it comes to our need to confront the reality of death? Here are three practical suggestions.
- We can intentionally take time to think and speak about death more than we currently do. Turn those nightly news items into memento mori that challenge you to think about the shortness of your own life. Set aside time in your week or month to contemplate death and better prepare for it. Discuss death more openly and frequently with trusted Christian friends: they need to be prepared just as much as you do.
- Share the gospel with people more often. Faithfully pleading with others to consider the reality of death and what lies beyond is a good way to keep being reminded of it yourself. A gospel outline like Two Ways to Live brings up the issue of death quite clearly. Others like Way of the Master often lead in with a question like “If you died tonight do you think you’d go to Heaven?” To present the gospel faithfully, you must tackle the reality of death: and not only that of the person you’re sharing with, but your own.
- Consider spending time with people who are closer to death or at greater risk of death. If you have trouble confronting death in your day-to-day thought-life and lived experience, it may be helpful to get connected with those who are evidently facing death soon. Spend time with elderly relatives or church members, or visit a local nursing home or hospital.
I’m not saying we should form relationships with the sick or elderly merely for the sake of turning them into functional memento mori – that would be morbid. There are much wider opportunities for mutual gain in relationships between younger and older generations. However, for the young who find it hard to treat death as something close or even imminent, one way our relationships with the elderly can benefit us is to see how they treat the subject of death when it is undeniably creeping closer.
So whatever you have planned for this week, this month, this year – remember to remember that you will die. Don’t allow the dark hues of death to colour your whole life: the resurrection of Christ enables us to enjoy life now and anticipate the fullness of life beyond death. But equally, don’t live in this world as if death is not something you will have to face and face soon.
To close with the enduring words of C.T. Studd:
Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
 Pieter Cornelissen “Skulls” flickr (CC BY 2.0)
 Dewey Wallace Spirituality of the Later English Puritans (Macon: Mercer University, 1987): 1.
 Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992): 207-208.
 You can read the poem in its entirety here: http://paulhockley.com/2016/05/24/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem-by-c-t-studd/