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Memento Mori: A Practice for Living

A memento mori reminder of death


Memento Mori: Remember your death. It may seem grim, but it's an ancient practice meant to invigorate your life.

“Remember that my life is but a breath.” —Job 7:7

As a culture, we go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging the reality of death—even in the midst of a global pandemic. Clergy and public figures overwhelmingly use their platforms to speak about prevention and “staying safe.” This is right and good, because life is precious, and we don’t want anyone to get sick or die. But it’s also a serious omission because we need to think about and prepare for death as we will all die—whether this year or in 50 years.

I have a Memento Mori practice, which basically means that every Lent I write the Latin phrase Memento Mori, or “remember your death,” on a piece of paper and hang it on my fridge. This way, I have to see it each time I get food for my family or myself. Every year, I worry that this piece of paper will freak out my babysitter, but I need the reminder so I do it anyway. The spiritual practice of keeping a visual reminder of one’s death in plain sight, be it a skull on your desk, a crucifix on your wall, or the phrase Memento Mori on the cover of your journal, is not unique to Catholics or Orthodox Christians. Many ancient belief systems, from the Stoics to followers of the Buddha, have encouraged their adherents not to “forget” their death, and even to meditate upon it.

Memento Mori isn’t about being depressed or miserable or about living in fear. Rather, meditating on the finitude of life is about living with intention. If I must die, how then should I live? Do I want to spend time, for example, hating my ex? Or do I want to try to forgive, in order to free myself from the burden of hate? Memento Mori means living in reality. There is a chance that someone dear to me will die from this pandemic. Who do I owe a phone call? Who do I need to forgive? What have I been wanting to say but have been too afraid? And should I chat with the older or at-risk people in my life about what they want when the time comes? Remembering death isn’t about being morbid, it’s about increasing my chances of a good life and a happy death.

It’s also a great tool for discernment. If I remember my death I might be quicker to leave a job I hate but that looks good on paper. I might be quicker to take “good risks” and do the things I’ve always wanted to do, be it writing a book, having a kid, going to a hot spring, or climbing a mountain.

Memento Mori is a spiritual practice because if we meditate on the reality of life’s transience, we’re less inclined to waste “our one wild and precious life” on grudges. Whether it’s a photo of a loved one who has died or a note on your bathroom mirror, consider your death a few moments a day; take a deep breath; and try to live accordingly.

Keep reading: “The Lost Art of Dying

Anna Keating is the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life (Penguin Random House) and the co-owner of Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio. The lay Catholic chaplain at Colorado College, she writes for America, Church Life Journal, Notre Dame magazine, and elsewhere.

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