Memento mori

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

I tell my pupils to live each day as if it were their last… I don’t want children to fear death; I want them to respect life… It’s good for children to confront the idea of death, and… of their own mortality. Sometimes a child feels squeamish about death… skulls and skeletons. When this happens, I tell my pupils to touch themselves. “Why are you afraid?” I ask, “when each of you owns a skull and skeleton. We all carry death within us.” They feel themselves, and they say: “Yes it’s true, we too are made of bones.”

– María Antonieta Sánchez de Escamilla, a kindergarten teacher in Mexico (The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloë Sayer)

No leaves, no flowers, no light, no warmth, November. The eleventh month, as the year begins to slip away, evokes mortality like no other. Though it begins with the festivity of All Saints Day, celebrating the friends of God now radiant with the light of heaven, it immediately shifts to the more shadowy realm of All Souls, the Day of the Dead. Death itself, rather than what lies beyond it, becomes our focus. We visit graves, light candles, speak names, gaze at old photographs, tell stories of vanished presences.

In Mexico, death is playfully treated in comic skeleton images and candy skulls, but it is not mocked. A resigned acceptance of mortality pervades the festivities. The living remember not only the dead, but the skeleton inside themselves. They too are “made of bones.”

In American culture, we are not so adept with death. We always seem a little surprised by it. We avoid speaking its name. Memento mori is not a common spiritual practice. Few of us keep skulls on our desk, or sleep in coffins while we still have breath.

Forty-five years ago this month, I had my closest brush with death. I was sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen bus hurtling down a New York thruway at 65 miles per hour. A friend and I had been traveling all night, and it was my turn to rest. Suddenly the bus went out of control and flipped sideways, rolling over and over six times until finally coming to a stop upside down on the grassy median.

I remember two things about that long roll. My mind sped up to make everything appear in slow motion. It was like being inside the giant rotating barrel at an old amusement park. It carries you up and up until gravity kicks in and you are dropped back to the bottom to begin all over again. Slide up, drop. Slide up, drop. But slowed down, so I could observe it all in detail. Meanwhile, guitars, suitcases and croquet balls were flying around in similar motion experiments.

The other thing I remember is how familiar death seemed. I was not thinking, “This can’t be happening.” I was thinking, “Oh, so this is where we finally meet.” I’m sure the words were not so precise in the moment, but the sense of recognition was. When the rolling finally stopped, I lay face down on the ceiling of the inverted bus. I probably blacked out for a moment. Then I heard a voice, “All you all right?” I wasn’t sure how to answer – not until I actually tried to move. What if I couldn’t? I hesitated a moment, delaying the verdict. At last I tested my hands; my arms; my legs. They still worked. I rose slowly to my feet. Thankfully, nothing was broken. My friend was unharmed as well. Life was never so sweet.

The bus itself was totaled, and one of the guitars, my grandfather’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe” Hawaiian guitar from the 1940’s, was pretty smashed up as well. Its broken body still hangs in our garage, my own memento mori.

In the predominant secular imaginary, a peek through death’s door finds no stairway to heaven, but only darkness. Termination. Void. A terrible forgetting. Emptiness.

This is a reasonable outlook, especially after the charnel house of the past century, but it’s not much to live by. And it is no more provable than belief’s alternative. None of us knows for sure. It’s a gamble either way.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia Plath summarized the modern formulary in her journal:

You don’t believe in God, or a life-after-death, so can’t hope for sugar-plums when your non-existent soul rises… Cats have nine lives, the saying goes. You have one; and somewhere along the thin, tenuous thread of your existence there is … the stopped heartbeat that spells the end of this particular individual which is spelled ‘I’ and ‘You’ and ‘Sylvia.’

John Donne, who himself never took death lightly, saw the outcome differently:

All mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.

Just a month before his death from cancer in 1631, Donne preached his final sermon, Death’s Duell, at St. Paul’s, London. “That which we call life is … spent in dying,” he wrote, but “a gate into heaven I shall have.” Then, though weak from illness, he posed for a sketch that would be used to make the sculpture for his tomb. After having a fire lit in his study (it was February), he stripped naked and wrapped himself in a burial shroud with only his face showing. Rather than lie down in the traditional sleeping position, he stood erect for the sketch. The resulting statue, the only monument to survive the Great London Fire of 1666, resides in the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s. Donne is standing to greet the resurrection. His eyes are not yet open, but he is smiling with expectant delight. His epitaph reads:

He lies here in the dust
but beholds Him whose name is Rising.

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