Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

 Francisco de Zurbáran  St Francis  (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.”