Mementos and Momento Mori

It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that I had to help my dad move a couple of heavier and more awkward items out of my grandparents’ now empty house. With my grandmother unable to live on her own and in a nursing home, and Grandpop having moved onto the other side of death more than three years ago, it’s come to the point where their old home is up for sale. I’d been in the house a number of times since neither of them lived there any longer, yet, with this last time there was a finality to it all, along with a spectral sense of completion that lay over the simple task of moving a couple of things. The consideration of my grandfather’s life as being now complete impressed itself upon me in a way it hadn’t before, and the time there that day put flesh on that old skeletal saying momento mori: remember death.

As the final passing moments of Lent are now present, I figure it is a more than fitting time to consider the final passing moments of our lives. And per my recent experience at my grandfather’s, I’ve found that one of the better ways to consider the reality of one’s own mortality is to consider the mortal span of years enjoyed by those that have been close to us this side of the curtain of the eternal. In this effort there are more than a few worthy saints to offer guidance and example, but it is often refreshing to turn to the ancient pagans, specifically of the Stoic variety, and there are perhaps none better in this enterprise than that of Marcus Aurelius.

Now, to be sure, for Marcus and the Catholic, a wide rift will emerge between their understandings of the nature of death and what happens after it, however, the Catholic would do well to listen to the advice of the old Emperor on remembering death and how to do so. More personally, I believe the Emperor’s advice and my recent trip to Grandpop’s brought together theory and practice, and I am certainly the better for it.

As one adage of the Emperor goes: “Begin to count up those you have known personally, one by one: how this one buried his friend and was later mourned himself, buried by another—all in so short a time. See how quick and coarse the drama of life runs.” [1] The wisdom is apparent in such a saying: remember first the death of others, this then allows, it seems to me, for a more realistic and striking approach to the consideration of one’s own mortality. This, to counter some criticism, should not be done to enter a sort of macabre morbidity, but to realize the fragility of the short span of years allotted to each of us; thereby instilling a greater appreciation for the portion we still have left, and hopefully using it to its full advantage.

 

One reason for this benefit, born of the consideration of the passing of those we have known, appears to be that none of us have ever experienced the event of death individually and the closest we can get to it, outside of near-fatal injuries or sicknesses, is for a person we used to talk with, hug, hold, argue with, forgive and ask forgiveness of, happens to pass on. The proximity of their lives to us, now no longer present, ought to serve as a striking reminder when they pass on to the eternal.

Further, this trip to Grandpop’s brought home to me the importance of mementos, and not only for their potential to elicit fond and warm remembrances of the former owner, but mementos for the purpose of momento mori. So now the painting hanging on my hallway wall that I took from my grandparents’ will hopefully serve to remind me, every now and then, that my short span will soon end, like it had for my Grandpop, and that I ought to use this reminder as a catalyst to put to use as well as possible that which is left to me.

Of course, one can look to countless sources found within the Church regarding the remembrance of death, its proper practice, and the benefits it affords a person. Some of the more impactful can be found among the Carthusians and Franciscans, with the little Francesco being a standard bearer of those that have encountered death triumphantly after having contemplated its reality throughout life. Ultimately, the perfection of the encounter with death is found with its Conqueror, Who, also found it essential to remind the barn-building, satisfied rich man to remember his death, which happened to visit at the pinnacle of this landowner’s earthly contentment.[2]

By remembering death well we might, as Marcus suggests, “spend this brief moment walking with nature and greet [our] short journey’s end with a good grace, like the olive that falls to the ground when it is ripe, blessing the earth that receives it and grateful to the tree that bore it.” Or, as the Poverello did, welcome Sister Death, who ushers us into the glorious sight of the One Who has conquered her.


[1] All quotes come from The Emperor’s Handbook, Marcus Aurelius, trans. by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks. Scribner, New York, 2002.
[2] Luke 12:14-21

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Matthew Chominski currently teaches history and literature to middle and high school students. His is a regular contributor to several Catholic publications. He resides with his family in his native Pennsylvania.

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