On his nightstand, St. Ignatius Loyola kept a skull marked with the words: “As you are, I was; as I am, you will be.”
A morbid fascination with death? No. Just a sure sign of serious Catholic spirituality in his time — a reminder to remain mindful of humans' inevitable date with their final earthly destiny. Memento mori!
Contrast that image with the average roadside cemetery of today, so common in a land whose highways and main roads sprung up long after most final resting places had already claimed their ground. The gravestones provide untold thousands of reminders of our final date with destiny — and yet thousands upon thousands of folks whiz past without so much as a glance in their direction.
My favorite cemetery is in Baltimore. I used to pass it on the way home from work in Washington each day. Spread across a small knoll next to the northbound lanes of Interstate 95, it's about a mile from the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, near the perpetually busy bus station. Stuck in this forgotten plot of land, across from a factory that makes ball bearings, it's all but invisible to the drivers and passengers who pass it by day after day.
I've seen it in the clear sunshine of a frigid January morning. I've seen it on the way back from the March for Life, snow reflecting the winter moonlight. I've seen it in the fall, leaves blowing between the gravestones, and on summer nights when the white markers, moist with the city's oppressive humidity, glisten against the sweltering skyline.
That cemetery witnesses to me in a powerful way. Alongside one of America's busiest thoroughfares, here lies a silent “community” whose inhabitants remind me to ask myself what all my activity is about. As motorists speed by, trying to get to their destinations as quickly as they can, the site reminds any who will listen that there will be a time for each of us when the hustle and bustle will all come to a final and everlasting halt.
The movers and shakers on their way to broker big deals in the capital of the most prosperous nation in history would do well to pause, look toward the cemetery, and note how difficult it is to distinguish the famous from the nameless. Or at least to consider a question Leo Tolstoy once posed in a short story. “How much land does a man need?” (Answer: About six feet.)
I've seen it in the fall, leaves blowing between the gravestones, and on summer nights when the white markers glisten against the skyline.
Yes, those who rest underneath that hill one day went to factories and offices with all the concerns of the day on their minds. They, too, made plans, closed deals and took journeys. Now they remind us that, wherever we're headed on that highway at the moment, it's eventually going to lead to another generation's forgotten hill.
Roadside graveyards are not the only memento mori American motorists encounter. Lately more and more small white crosses are popping up on the shoulders of highways and secondary roads where tragic car accidents have occurred, ending busy lives abruptly and unexpectedly. Some of these roadside shrines are elaborate affairs with photographs, letters, banners and stuffed animals.
And those who take the trouble to memorialize their lost loved ones do the rest of us a favor. By indicating the spot where their beloved entered eternity, they remind us of the patristic motto that it is a “holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.” They remind us of the basic truth of the doctrine of the communion of saints: There is a chain of hearts that neither death nor the present nor the future can ever break.
Perhaps past generations of devout Christians were readier to embrace the reality of death than the present generation because they didn't place their faith in the “miracles of modern medicine.” Parents who had many children knew that not all would survive to adulthood, and they were highly doubtful about their own chances of attaining old age, too. And they certainly didn't know about experiencing at least five days a week as a race against a precise, digital clock.
Well, look around. Average life expectancy has certainly increased — but, throughout history, the death rate (except in the cases of the likes of the prophet Elijah and possibly the Blessed Virgin) has remained exactly the same for the entire human race.
For many, this is a reality too terrible to face; our popular culture encourages us to avoid it by putting it out of mind and doggedly clinging to our youth. But Christians are called to take a more hopeful outlook. “For to me life is Christ and death is gain,” as St. Paul wrote. “… I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians, 1:21, 23).
American culture may not be comfortable with the reality of death, but reminders of death are all around us — even along the transient paths that carry us through one rush hour after the next.
The Church's days of All Saints and All Souls are upon us. Have you taken a moment of late to remember that you, too, have a date with eternal destiny? Memento mori!
John M. Grondelski is a moral theologian currently living in London.