Memento Mori & Living Intentionally
How would you live today if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? It’s a bold question, and an uncomfortable one. No one generally likes to think about when they’ll die. But it’s a question that forces us to consider how we live and behave right now: what if today were your last day on Earth?
Would you be a little kinder to those around you? To yourself? Would you make the important things in life -- faith and family -- your priorities instead of getting caught up in worldly, trivial matters? Would it change your perspective on how to live and what to make a priority? Of course it would. It would dramatically change how you live, how you love others, and how you practice your faith.
This is what memento mori means… to “remember your death.” Death is an inescapable reality of human existence. But this phrase takes on very strong meaning in the Christian faith. Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t meant to depress you. It’s meant to help you live a better, more intentional life.
A history of memento mori
Historically, the concept of meditating on one’s death and specifically the phrase “memento mori” dates back to ancient Rome and was incorporated into Christianity during the medieval era, a time in history that saw plenty of death.
One can see the concept of remembering one’s death on full display in many of the crypts of churches throughout Europe. Few things are such an uncomfortable reminder of our mortality than the displays of skeletal remains in ossuaries across Europe, like the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucini in Rome where the bones of hundreds of Capuchin friars line the walls and ceilings under the Church of Saint Mary of the Conception on the Via Veneto. Further, the Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century to guide the life, work, and prayer of the Benedictine religious order, says to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.”
And if you’ve never visited an ossuary or read the Rule of Saint Benedict, you’ve probably remembered your own death on the Feast of All Souls on November 1, on which Catholics pray for the dead, or on Ash Wednesday, when you receive ashes as the priest says, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Why remember your death?
Why should we think about our death, and why do Catholics seem to want to be reminded of death? If we didn’t know better, we’d think it’s all just a bit too morbid and macabre. But as Christians, we do know better because we look at death differently than the rest of the world in light of our faith. Remembering our death isn’t intended to send us into a depression -- rather, in remembering our own death, we remember that Christ has conquered sin and death.
Remembering that life on this Earth really is temporary -- that this life is not all there is -- reminds us that this life should be lived in a way that prepares us for the next. It invites us to live more authentic, intentional lives that prepare us for the ultimate goal: Heaven.
Not only does memento mori help us live better now, but contemplating our death is also a source of hope. For a Christian, thinking of our own death also means thinking of the death of Christ -- and by thinking about His death, we naturally must call to mind His resurrection, which is ultimately a source of hope.
Memento mori inspires us to live better
Contemplating our death helps us to, essentially, get our priorities for our earthly lives straight. Living in the knowledge that we could die at any moment is an ideal impetus to help us avoid temptations to worldly things, and to help us love more fully and live more intentionally. This practice of memento mori can also help us to…
- Use our time well. If you really contemplated the fact that your life could be over tomorrow, how would you use your time today? Memento mori can motivate us to spend more time on the things that matter, and use our time and our gifts well to serve and love others.
- Love more fully. Remembering that our time on Earth is limited also helps us let go of small inconveniences and annoyances everyday, and calls us to greater patience and love of those around us.
- Make holiness a priority. This is perhaps the most important benefit of remembering our death. It’s common for people of faith to understand the importance of pursuing holiness or committing to putting faith first, but to put it off for later. Remembering that we don’t know when our lives will end serves as a great motivation to make holiness and living for God our priority now, not later -- because we may not have time to do so later.
- Have a healthy perspective on things of this world. Knowing that this world isn’t all there is and contemplating our exit from this world helps us have a better perspective on worldly belongings and worldly ambitions. Heaven is the ultimate goal, and keeping this in focus tempers our tendency to become attached to worldly possessions or to become too focused on worldly success to the detriment of our spiritual lives.
- “Live holy the present moment”. These are the wise words of St. Gianna Beretta Molla -- memento mori can encourage us to live more authentically in every moment, which is much-needed in a culture that gets so absorbed by screen time and caught up in planning for the future. Knowing that we really only have the present moment will help us enter into it more fully.
Memento mori is hopeful
If you’re wondering how to implement this practice of remembering your death in your own faith life, it doesn’t require anything fancy: just a small reminder of your own mortality like a skull sitting on your desk, or our Memento Mori Companion Bracelet.
Christianity is full of paradoxes -- and one of the most notable is that meditating on our death can actually help us live hopeful lives. But it’s true: memento mori can bring us hope by reminding us to start living intentionally for Heaven now instead of later, and that life is best lived in the hope of the resurrection.