At the ripe old age of five years old I came up with my own version of a memento mori. It was totally by chance—there was no real backstory other than a curious (adopted) kid struggling to make sense of his existence. The experience is memorable because it was so traumatic. You can imagine for yourself what happens when a kid lies in his bed and stares into the dark repeating the phrase, “forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever…”
If that scenario causes you to feel a pang of sympathy, thank you. I’d exasperate myself to the point of hysteria, jump out of bed and run downstairs and into the arms of my concerned mother. I was inconsolable, babbling on and on about “forever” and “eternity.” This would become a habit, but the first few times were as alarming to her as they were to me. So, with the Andy Griffith show on in the background, my mom would try to answer my one and only question: “What happens when we die?” Like any caring mother, she would mention “heaven” and “God” and "being good” and on and on until I’d finally calm down and go back to bed. Yet, no matter how hard she tried, I never heard an answer that truly satisfied the potent mix of fear and curiosity.
Thankfully, my trips downstairs subsided as time passed, but my obsession with the question did not. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that I found the answer I sought. It turns out my mom was onto something: a proper understanding of death is undoubtedly linked to the concepts of God and heaven and the Bible— it just takes a lot of searching to get down to the nitty-gritty.
The fact is that people die, dreams die, love dies, habits die, animals die, plants die, even the main character dies. Death is essential: “Kill your darlings” says the writer William Faulkner, “Death smiles at us” say the warriors of Gladiator, “‘Til death do us part” say the lovers on their wedding day. Death plays a major role in every aspect of life so why is it such a profound struggle for humanity to come to grips with memento mori, or, the inevitability of our death?
What is ironic, however, is that while we may flee from the reality of our own mortality, we are obsessed with death. Death in entertainment is big business. We are captivated by stories of serial killers, assassins, vampires, zombies, wars—anything to do with death, whether in a book or on a screen, and we are hooked. Every one of us has a morbid sense of curiosity that fuels a deep-seated subconscious impulse to relentlessly search for answers about death. The paradox lies in the fact that if the conversation is about our own death or that of someone we love, we dodge the subject, but if it’s someone else’s death we're talking about, we can’t look away.
The fascination with and avoidance of death is not exclusive to the modern era, writers for millennia have been compelled by the subject. In fact, throughout literary history death is often crowned, “the great antagonist.” We have been asking the same question since the beginning of time.
In every culture there are certain elements that limit our ability to have a proper understanding of death. In a culture of affluence, we are often sheltered from death in a unique way. The richer a community, the more we use material possessions to distract ourselves from the things we fear. The inimitable preacher and theologian Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said as he toured the luxurious home of a congregant, “These are the kinds of things that make dying hard.” When we have plentiful resources we can alleviate, or at a minimum, soften the harsh realities of life. When we have no immediate needs, we have no will to investigate deeper things and the last thing we want to do is engage with a concept like memento mori. Why be reminded of the one thing I can't resolve?
There is certainly nothing new under the sun when it comes to our love-hate relationship with mortality, particularly when it comes to our vanity. We tell ourselves, it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, it’s who we are on the inside. If the health and beauty industry is any indication of where our real values are, then those who have focused a bit more time on the “inside” are way behind. Physical health is certainly very important—however, when our physical health becomes our identity, we lose sight of heaven. There is no subject more threatening than death to someone who is terrified of aging.
Yet, no matter how many miles we run, laps we swim, or how much Botox we inject, there’s no escape: death ultimately finds each of us. Despite all of our efforts, mortality knocks on our door: our eyes dim, our hair thins, our waist thickens, our muscles shrink, we sag more, sleep less, and remember very little. As we age we feel the temperature drop and the air pressure increase, we hear the leaves quake as the tempest called death looms on the horizon. The Psalmist describes it as “anguish of the grave,” writing of the great and incomprehensible abyss where “the cords of death entangled me / the anguish of the grave came over me; / I was overcome by distress and sorrow” (Ps. 116:3).
So take heart, our problem isn't that we experience fear in light of death— everyone does. The potential for harm and good is in how we respond to this fear. A healthy view of death can be very helpful in the way we view this life. As we embrace our mortality, our ability to see changes. Our dimming earthly eyes actually become clearer as they focus on eternity. Memento mori fosters that kind of vision. As the apostle Paul put it: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
When I consider my traumatic “death quest” as a youngster, I am so deeply grateful that at 19 years old I found an answer that changed me and the course of my life. Some of the fearful unknowns about mortality have never fully gone away—in fact, I can still feel dread when I try to wrap my head around “forever.” However, today the focus of my attention is first, a confession; second, a new question; and third, a request. The confession is simple: “Lord, I am worried about what I have, I am concerned about how I look, and I’m anxious about my future.” The question is practical: “Lord, how shall I live today in light of spending eternity with you?” And the request: “Lord help me actually see what is truly important so I can do what’s most important in your sight.”
This Easter, as you experience the world around you, our hope is that you consider the day of your death. We trust that the theme of memento mori will lead you to new places with bright horizons. After all, what is hovering out on that horizon isn’t a storm, but rather the throngs of saints who have gone before us, waiting to welcome us into eternity.
Erik Petrik is the chief creative officer at Christianity Today. He and his wife Kelli have five grown kids and live in Edwards, Colorado.
This article is part of New Life Rising which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/lent.
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