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A spiritual practice particularly popular among medieval Christians, memento mori is making a comeback today among Christians and non-Christians alike. Memento mori is a Latin phrase often rendered as “Remember your death” or “Remember you will die.” Since ancient times, memento mori and the various symbols associated with it—including skulls, hourglasses, and skeletons—have served as a reminder of human mortality and an incentive to live well.
Memento mori is a counterbalance to the sentiment encapsulated in a famous line from one of Horace’s lyric poems: nunc est bibendum or “now is the time for drinking” or the modern version, “You only live once.” Memento mori and nunc est bibendum sum up two very different but also commonplace approaches to death. Memento mori serves as a sober reminder of one’s mortality in order to live a life of virtue. Nunc est bibendum is a reminder of one’s mortality in order to live for pleasure and fleeting experiences.
Of course, memento mori is not only about living life in a sober way. Practiced well, living with one’s death in mind can help a person to find joy and happiness as he or she grows to appreciate the preciousness of life. Memento mori is not a morbid fixation on death; it is a rich and ancient spiritual practice that can lead a person to a life of virtue and eventually to a life that ends in eternal salvation.
In short, thinking about your death will lead you to life.
As Saint Ambrose wrote:
Death must be active within us if life also is to be active within us. . . . You must keep facing it with perseverance. [Death] is a passover from corruption, from mortality to immortality, from rough seas to a calm harbor. The word “death” must not trouble us; the blessings that come from a safe journey should bring us joy. What is death but the burial of sin and the resurrection of goodness?
If you would like to reap the spiritual benefits of keeping your death daily before you this year, here are some ideas:
- Get a skull for your desk: In the tradition of many of the saints, I have a skull on my desk to remind me that some day I will die. I tweet about it every day, which is a good way to make sure I don’t forget to think about my death. I have been doing this for over 150 days and it has changed my life. You might also consider buying a skull, or some other small reminder of your impending death, for your desk in the coming year.
- Read a book about the Last Things: Consider doing some reading this year on the last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). This may sound like a real bummer, but books on these subjects change lives. Saint Therese said that reading End of the Present World was “one of the greatest graces” of her life. I am currently reading Eschatology: Death and Eternal Lifeby Joseph Ratzinger. Peter Kreeft has a book on heaven called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven. Monsignor Bransfield also has a book on heaven called Life Everlasting.
- Make a resolution focused on holiness: Most people make New Year’s resolutions that center on health, success, and worldly goals. However, these resolutions are often made in willed obliviousness to our mortality and inevitable death. When a person works to keep the reality of death in mind, then holiness becomes a first priority. So try making at least one resolution this year that is focused on one thing—becoming a saint.
- Plan your funeral: Planning your funeral is a reminder that death could come at any time. It may sound macabre, but no matter your age, planning for an unexpected death is a good, meditative practice. You might find yourself imagining those you love, wondering whether you’ll have regrets, and hoping for a life well lived. Planning your funeral helps you to be prepared, not only for the practical details of the funeral, but to meet God as well.
- Spend time with older, wiser people: I am privileged to live in a convent with a community of older sisters. Just living near them and hearing their wisdom helps me to think about my own death. One of our elderly sisters, Sister Mary Paula with a sly smile, often to anyone who will listen: “I’m headed for the last roundup.” Death is near and she knows it. But she also knows that she has lived a full life of love for God and others. It’s an inspiration just to be around her and other sisters who have lived rich, well-lived lives and are now ready to be called home.
This year, may you keep your death always before you so that you may truly live!
If you have any ideas for memento mori New Year’s resolutions, please leave them in the comments!