Memento Mori — The Gift of Death
“The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life.” (CCC 1020)
“Someone who is always thinking about happiness is a fool. A wise person thinks about death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:4)
In his magnificent Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, St. Francis of Assisi, describes humanity’s “siblings” in creation as Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Earth. He ends this exhortation to worship and praise God by mentioning one more sibling:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your will!
The second death can do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks.
And serve Him with great humility.
The Church dedicates the month of November to those who have passed before us―it’s not just the first two days.
And as we pray for those who have left this plane of existence for whatever awaits them, we are also called to ponder our own ultimate demise.
One would be hard-pressed to find a saint who hadn’t considered his death. Martyrs embrace the sacrifice of their own lives for the sake of others and for the Faith. Christ died an ignominious and painful death for our sins. In fact, whenever the Church celebrates a saint’s feast day, we are celebrating their dies natalis―the day they are born into Heaven, that is, the day they died.
There are those who insist that all talk of death is morbid—we call these people “atheists.” And there is a perfectly good reason why these people avoid all talk of death―it’s out of fear. Christians need not be fearful. In fact, I would go further to say we must never be afraid of death. We must embrace our mortality because it is the thing that defines us as frail and fallen human beings―fallen and broken, but immensely loved.
Memento mori (Latin: "remember that you will die") is the Christian spiritual reflection on one’s mortality. It reminds one of the passing, ephemeral nature of this world which ultimately, should, mean nothing to us. All the Earth is a “refining station” in which we are readied for a more perfect state in Heaven with our Lord and Redeemer. In that sense, Purgatory, the next step for most of us... hopefully… is a place where we are even more refined and purified.
Death is the fulfillment of our life―it’s the reason why we were born. It’s the reason why we are called “mortals.” All of us, sooner or later, will die. We enter the world through birth and we exit stage right via death.
Fear of death and fear of dying are two different things. A Christian who has thought seriously about his life should have no serious fear of death.
Dying, on the other hand, is awful. It can come in countless painful ways, mostly unexpectedly, but this is not the same thing as death―or a fear of death―itself.
Fear about death is the fruit of an unprepared―and perhaps, unrepentant―soul. We no idea when we will shuffle off this mortal coil and yet this unknowable question is what defines us as mortals. Our eventual death is what stops us from playing in traffic or from never forgiving someone who has wronged us. Life is short, seventy years, perhaps. Eighty if we’re strong. Even the best of these years are full of struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly. Life is soon over, and we are gone. (Psalm 90:10)
Death will come for all of us, regardless of the deluded so-called “transhumanists” who hope to cheat death. (By the way, many of them are dead already.)
Death is our crowning achievement. Or perhaps we should rather say, our funeral will be. Will we have thousands lining the streets in mourning as in the case of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, or will there be no one but the mortician and the gravediggers present?
Our death is the crowning achievement of our lives and the point to which we are all working. And the wonderful thing about it is its unexpectedness. If we knew the time of our future death, that would make us spiritually lackadaisical or perhaps even apathetic and resigned.
God knows the time of our death and our ultimate fate. That’s why we need to His guidance and protection as we advance towards our unknown future. As the Apostle James tells us, “You don't even know what your life tomorrow will be! You are like a puff of smoke, which appears for a moment and then disappears.” (James 4:14)
We ask Him for mercy. He gives it to us if we show mercy to others. (Matthew 25:31-46, James 2:13). He gives us His love. All He asks in return is that we love others as we love ourselves. (Mark 12:30-31)
How do we do this? By loving Jesus and His Mother and bringing them both into our lives. It’s little wonder why St. Joseph is the Patron Saint of a Good Death. On his deathbed, Joseph had Jesus on one side and Mary on the other. That was a good death indeed.
Death is a wonderful gift but we must see it as a gift and a goal and not as a fearful punishment. The Book of Wisdom cautions us on this point:
Do not bring on your own death by sinful actions. God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives Him no pleasure. He created everything so that it might continue to exist, and everything He created is wholesome and good. There is no deadly poison in them. No, death does not rule this world. (Wisdom 1:12-14)
As St. Ambrose reflects the same idea in his book on the death of his brother Satyrus:
Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; He prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing. (Lib. 2, 40. 41. 46. 47. 132. 133: CSEL 73, 270-274, 323-324)
Death is a part of us and our Faith. It’s too important to ignore it. If saints are the only people who populate Heaven, exactly what are you doing now to make sure you are among the elect?
“May the Almighty Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.” (from Night Prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours)