Muriel Sparks's third novel, the macabre but sharply witty Memento Mori (1959), has three epigraphs; the first two by Yeats and Traherne are about old age, while the third from The Penny Catechism is as follows:

Q. What are the four last things to be ever remembered?
A. The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.

Sparks, who was 39 before she published any fiction, had converted to Roman Catholicism five years before, calling the church "something to measure from" rather than a direct source of inspiration. But the "four last things" are not listed as such in Scripture, as eschatology had been developed by that very church out of Jesus' references to apocalypse (largely in Matthew 24-25), bits of Isaiah and Daniel, and especially the Book of Revelation.

Sparks might well have added an epigraph from the psychology of C. G. Jung, for in this novel all her characters are not merely old, but some are senile; and Jung held the view that anyone in old age who did not focus on the goal of death was probably neurotic. By Jung's definition, most of Sparks's characters are.

This aging circle of old friends and rivals lives in the quarrelsome past; they prolong old literary arguments and jealousies, jockey to inherit wealth, snipe at society and one another, employ silly substitutes for former sexual vitality, collect encyclopedic but insignificant research on the process of aging, and when blackmailed, either keep or reveal secrets the reader judges to be trivial. In short, these elders meditate on everything except their own imminent deaths.

Besides this cluster of superficial friends and kin in the 75 to 85 age bracket, 12 old ladies (called by nurses "the Grannies") survive but wet their beds in the government-subsidized Maud Long Medical Ward. The dozen includes Miss Jean Taylor, formerly a maid-companion and acquaintance of that larger senior group still able to live independently outside old-age institutions. Both Taylor and retired Chief Inspector Henry Mor-timer receive the whispered fears of the rest as, one by one, they begin receiving phone messages from an anonymous caller who says only, "Remember you must die!" and then hangs up. To every person, the caller reveals a different tone, accent, apparent age, or class.

After Dame Lettie Colson is bludgeoned to death during a random robbery, police try to link these spreading telephone calls to some actual stalker preying on the elderly, but wiretaps and detective work fail. Both Mortimer and Taylor decide the strange caller must be Death himself, or else a personification rising from the subconscious of each victim on whom death is persistently laying claim, despite their denials of mortality.

Article continues below

During his own conscientious investigation, policeman Mortimer remarks that if he had his life to live over, he would "compose himself every night by practicing the remembrance of death," because that practice intensifies life. "Without it," he adds, "you might as well live on the whites of eggs."

And when one visitor to the old ladies' home, who is also plagued by the unknown caller, suggests that Jean Taylor's quick mind with its history of sophistication must hate to be remanded by arthritis to this collection of drooling, incoherent wards of the state, she calls those other 11 grannies her own "memento mori—like your phone calls."

Supernatural into natural

However gloomy this plot summary may sound, Memento Mori is an amusing novel in Evelyn Waugh style, affirming life by showing this last stage either deepened or wasted, produced by a writer who has always been preoccupied with metaphysical questions of good and evil.

Sparks often introduces the supernatural into everyday settings, as if (since the two planes coexist side by side) sometimes the membrane between them would be bound to break—a premise applied by Flannery O'Connor in her own fiction. Sparks, for example, brings Satanism into the suburbs in The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In one of her stories, as cynics are conducting a tawdry Nativity play, a real and irritable angel bursts in.

This intrusion of supernatural into natural seems, once permitted at all, to become recurrent with writers, and not simply in Frank Peretti's sagas of demonic warfare. In my novel Souls Raised from the Dead, once I had written one scene in which a possible "ghost" (the dead Miss Lila Torrido) appears while Mary Grace Thompson is dying, it became inevitable that the restless spirit of Tamsen Donner should haunt many pages of the next novel, The Sharp Teeth of Love, as it is inevitable that death and love are every serious writer's primary subjects. Ghosts themselves are contagious scene stealers, appearing, for example, in the novels of Reynolds Price, entire story collections by Alison Lurie and Edith Wharton, in Voltaire's Semiramus, Henry James's Turn of the Screw, and the work of Toni Morrison, Randall Kenan, and many other African-American writers, even as a sense of the revitalized presence of the late Joy Davidman in C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed.

Article continues below

Whether readers decide such ghosts are actual spirits or only psychological projections matters less than the intended light the real as well as fictional death casts back onto life itself. Though one of La Rochefoucauld's maxims warns that "Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily," Socrates did not flee Athens despite Crito's advice, and Jesus moved straight ahead to Jerusalem and Gethsemane. Jung's opinion about confronting one's own impending death is shared by Kierkegaard, who—finding an advantage in our normal death-fearing despair with all its risk of meaninglessness—suggests that from that precipice man might "leap" and "fall into the open arms of God."

Two local deaths

On one Sunday in the spring of 1993, I was driving home from church down the narrow rutted road in Chatham County, North Carolina, that we shared with neighbors, when I was stopped by my husband's waving arms. "Frank died," he said tersely. "Can you sit with Lib till the undertaker comes?"

This couple had been our good neighbors ever since we had bought land here a decade before, land that had once been part of a larger tract owned by Lib's father. When we moved into an existing small house on those acres of pasture and forest, we must have seemed helpless city folks; but their natural kindness embraced us nonetheless, advised us on well pumps and feed dealers, sent our loose dogs home, shared garden produce.

Lib and Frank, then in their seventies, had lived through a long marriage with its good and hard times. During these later, harder days, his emphysema sometimes frustrated a once-active Frank; nursing him while coping with her own ailments had also made Lib weary. When his condition worsened, I served as witness on the day he signed his living will to reject extreme resuscitation measures. On that day he seemed irascible, mistrustful, as if the paper gave permission for spouse and hospice to rush him to the grave.

Now he had died at home as he preferred. I went indoors to where Lib sat like a guard by the hospital bed, watching the sheet-covered features of her husband. Although as a child I had said farewell to grandparents who then died overnight, had hugged my recuperating father only to learn by phone that he did not survive to the next dawn, I had by now reached the age at which burgeoning cancers and waning hearts were killing my own former schoolmates; this was my first experience of sitting with the widow and the newly dead—a vigil that for a generation earlier had been commonplace.

Article continues below

For an hour or so we talked about Frank, who had "died so easily," just between spoonfuls of Jell-O being slipped into his mouth. There were memories of early marriage, golf games, other houses and jobs in other cities, baseball, their inability to have children, special vacations, his love of chocolate, and his fatal love of unfiltered cigarettes.

Gone from this history was any recollection of how illness had lately made him cross. If the dying are said in the end to review their own lives, so survivors also sort through the years, and favorably, as if the corpse might overhear. Selectively, the slate is wiped clean, the sum of good increased. At one point, Lib suddenly leaned forward, pulled down the sheet, and kissed Frank's cooling forehead.

We Christians still meditating on the last things draw comfort when we remember that Jesus himself was no stoic on the cross.

Then she said softly, "I have always loved you," and covered his face again.

Afterward, in a buzz of crowded activity, the undertakers came to wheel out the body, hospice workers to flush prescription pills down the commode into the septic tank, men to roll away the rented bed and oxygen equipment, until the room was suddenly empty of the whole experience. Frank would be cremated, his ashes retained until the urn eventually could be propped between Lib's embalmed hands—I do not know if this was done when she died 18 months later.

Neither had a dramatic death; neither took a stirring nor quotable departure toward Rabelais's "great perhaps," but they had left for me a local parallel to Goethe's Baucis and Philemon, and a reminder of his words in Elective Affinities, "The sum which two married people owe to one another defies calculation. It is an infinite debt, which can only be charged through all eternity."

How to die now

Montaigne once wanted to produce a book of real and literary deaths that "in teaching men to die should after teach them to live."

In 1980, Norman and Betty Donaldson compiled 300 real deaths in How Did They Die?—an alphabetical chronology stretching from Socrates to Elvis Presley. Their pages primarily make readers contemplate the contrast between pre-antibiotic deathbeds at home versus today's choices of high-tech hospitals (where 50 percent of Americans died in 1949 and 80 percent do now) or Dr. Kevorkian's oxygen-stealing machine; choices among extreme unction, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages, or Raymond Moody's near-death experiences (familiarly known now as ndes); between the mossy country churchyard and today's perpetual-care parks where flat headstones make grass cutting easy for power mowers; between those who have died accepting God's mystery and those others accepting some other metaphysic—reincarnation, New Age karma, whatever.

Article continues below

During the nineteenth century, physicians encouraged to prescribe narcotics for the dying were said to engage in "obstetrics for the soul"; today lawyers and doctors more typically argue over how much more humanely we euthanize dogs and cats.

Death and church

Let it be said straightaway that we children who grew up among Associate Reformed Presbyterians had memento mori impressed on us officially every seventh day and subliminally during nightly prayer: "if I should die before I wake." We were admonished young to work, for the night is coming, to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, and so on. Although in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had not one word to say about death, and although our radio heroes regularly escaped death to fight crime again in next week's sequel, Sunday school made vivid to us how Stephen went down under stones, made clear to us also that the head of John the Baptist could not be reattached.

My lifelong "remembering" since then has run the gamut. I tried the American Society for Psychical Research, but lost patience with Ian Stevenson and those reincarnated (previously wealthy) children in India. Bridey Murphy and the Fox sisters proved fake. Every photo of ectoplasm always looked like damaged film. Even now, when insomniac, I listen to Art Bell's wee-hours broadcasts from Nevada, on which he frequently interviews time travelers, witches, ufo witnesses, Big Foot survivors, and alien abductees; but I do not phone in for details. Neither Houdini nor those whom I loved, once deceased, have ever come back bearing news. Of course, kin and old friends appear in my dreams, where they always seem healed, whole, and happy while they walk along tropical beaches—but so what?

No, after transmigration and Freud's Thanatos; after the crystal balls, Ouija boards, hellfire preachers, eternal recurrence, Buddhist reabsorption, automatic writing, magnetic lees, druid monoliths, table tipping; after Hades, Sheol, and Gehenna; beyond J. B. Rhine, Colin Wilson, Edgar Casey, Hal Lindsey, and Shirley MacLaine; after Camus's weary Sisyphus gives up; after Marcus Aurelius plus the stoicism of Ecclesiastes wears thin (these being the most appealing alternatives), there is no place for this aging Death-Rememberer to go but home to the New Testament.

Article continues below

Koheleth or Christ?

Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, concludes, "I think it is very hard for secular men to die." He did die, of cancer, shortly after the book was published.

So did Dostoevsky die three months after finishing The Brothers Karamazov, which opens with a New Testament epigraph and closes with an affirmation of hope for eternal life.

Ars moriendi—the art of dying—and its parallel, the art of mourning the dead, still seem in the end to rely on secular stoicism or religious faith. For example, Sherwin B. Nuland's 1994 bestseller How We Die is careful, scientific, even ethical; but it is not religious. And when in 1997 professional poet and also professional undertaker Thomas Lynch published his essay collection about life, death, and faith, the book was criticized in the New York Times Book Review from the viewpoint of a secular humanist who preferred Jessica Mitford's version.

But we Christians still meditating on the last things draw comfort when we remember that Jesus himself was no stoic on the cross. He felt despair and dread before and during the crucifixion; he cried out his challenging question to God as have King David, Job, Ivan Ilych, and millions upon millions. Stoicism is not required of believers, but hope is offered. Jane Kenyon, dead before fifty, ends one poem thus: "and God, as promised, proves / to be mercy clothed in light."

If I cannot refute the stoics, nor shrug off cosmic indifference, if I cannot cheer up Beckett's lonely characters waiting onstage, not concur with Freud about the infantilism of religion, discard it, and then advance bravely into "hostile life," neither can these refute my sometimes wavering hope. And my emphasis is on hope, hope in God's mercy rather than fear of eternal punishment, which worried even ancient Egyptian kings and made Virgil separate the good from the justly punished dead. It is our sadism, not evangelical Christianity, that relishes medieval and hellish visions of torment, and it is our hubris that in imagination tests and tunes the personal harp and mentally tries on well-suited wings. Only if ends justify means can we (on the far side of the veil) take pleasure in separating sheep from goats forever, after we have finished (on the near side of that veil) making war on infidels and burning heretics at the stake.

Article continues below

Spiritual journeys into the beyond were nearly as frequent in the Middle Ages as those taken now during flat ekg moments before a defibrillator blasts the heart into rhythm again. In their context, medieval soul travelers often saw on their journeys ample fire and brimstone; in ours, the dying patient typically rushes through some final birth/death canal toward light. Doubters, of course, dismiss testimony about nde as a subjective response to oxygen deprivation. To them, such anecdotal evidence is as unpersuasive here as in second-hand, multiple translations of Saint Paul. Even Hans KŸng, in Eternal Life, distinguishes death as the final destination from the process leading to it, dying cell by cell, and believes most of Moody's nde samples have experienced the first stage of that process but not the last condition.

Remember you must live

Memento mori, then, commands me not so much to dwell on heaven, hell, or the millennium, nor to contemplate the whole world's eventual death in apocalypse, but to value today's immediate gift of life against the backdrop of transience and God's eternity. Though Jesus acknowledged an end time, his emphasis was on daily forgiveness and hourly love.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, takes only 11 verses to summarize all postresurrection events—in the long version of the ending—and it ends with the apostles at work in this world. The earliest New Testament Easter story (1 Corinthians 15) says little about the mechanics of how Christ died and then came back, but concentrates more on what his overcoming of death should mean in human lives. And that elaborator Luke, who will double everybody else's angels at every opportunity, relocates Jesus' ascension to Bethany but closes by emphasizing the praise and worship of the 11 left behind. (Naturally, he cannot resist adding more angels plus a spread of clouds in Acts 1:10, but the heavenly message puts a quick end to sky gazing; clearly the coming Pentecost is more important.) And gospel writer John shows no interest at all in postresurrection space travel. Jesus at the end of the Fourth Gospel is far too busy to take airy flight because, by patient repetition, he keeps trying to make one thing clear to Peter: "Do you love me? Feed my lambs."

Memento which dying, then?

For me, as for some characters in my fiction, memento mori is an order to take life as seriously as its Creator did, to apply urgency, to view each day in an eternal context, to live right now the abundant and loving life Christ commanded—and to fail at all these but still to trust in mercy.

Article continues below

Except for this heightened commitment and purpose provided by our sure mortality, I believe that in ways beyond my understanding God has in Christ defeated the former annihilating power of death.

Oh, that's easy to say. Too easy. Vague. Facile.

Such trust comes harder when tested against real dying. When Bob, my Early American Literature colleague in the University of North Carolina's English Department—a friend of 30 years—progressed downward by slow medical degrees from finding a lump in the groin to lymphoma, then up by way of successful chemotherapies and optimistic MRI reports, he experienced all that intensity of life measured against the risk of death. He was free to retire, to write more essays on the books he loved, to travel to Spain.

But before too long, in disguise and by sabotage, the cells in his lungs went malignant. When no more cure was available, he received at home old friends and kin and former students. There was time to laugh and talk, to share many good memories, to omit any pretense that he would long survive.

Those good times ran out. When last I came, he had turned into a skeleton thinly wrapped in yellowing pastry, eyes already closed, the breath whapping in and out with a great suck and labored release. Having been told that hearing is the last sense to shut down, I sat by his shell through which air slammed in and out, and reminded his ear of affections and blessings. It was like trying to talk to a bellows.

The next day he was gone, having told us no more about death than all the 300 recorded in the pages of How Did They Die? And at the memorial service in a bland campus auditorium, I swallowed hard and read aloud as he had wished Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death." Cole Porter recordings were played, the Lord's Prayer murmured. By the podium, Bob's color photo—pink and precancer, young and already long ago—was displayed.

Not a churchgoer, Bob was perhaps not technically a Christian except in his behavior, but I have continued to remember his particular death (and the bravery by which an excellent teacher continued to teach us who would outlive him) in the context of Goethe's Faust. The play opens with a God-Mephistopheles wager much like the opening of Job, and it ends with Faust, who richly deserves all punishment, being granted mercy instead. When Goethe was 82, he emphasized that this salvation came not because it was earned but "by the divine grace vouchsafed to us."

Article continues below

"Say to the moment, 'Stay!' Thou art so fair!" Goethe's line captures the intensity with which we transient mortals who know we are transient must surely seize the day. And "He who strives mightily we are allowed to save," speaks to that final and mysterious grace that runs to meet all of us prodigal sons and daughters.

Say to the moment, Stay! Strive mightily. Memento mori.

Doris Betts is Alumni Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of many novels, including most recently The Sharp Teeth of Love (Knopf). This essay is taken from Things in Heaven and Earth: Exploring the Supernatural, edited by Harold Fickett, Copyright 1998 by Paraclete Press. Used by permission of Paraclete Press, P.O. Box 1568, Orleans MA 62653.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.