Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Memento Mori

I woke up this morning and instantly regretted it.

The skull upon my roommate’s desk, affectionately nicknamed “Tom,” sat grimacing at me, proclaiming memento mori – remember, you die – to my aching headMy exceedingly jovial, short, bearded roommate was conducting his morning routine and my toes were lying exposed to the harsh reality of the world beyond my covers. That, and my nasal passages were flowing freely as a Norwegian fjord.

I rolled over and embedded my face into my pillow. Becoming painfully aware of the vulnerability of the human body seems to remind us that we're not invincible, but have an expiration point. There’s something about sickness, some realization of frailty, that starts one thinking about death.

Death and All His Friends

Has anyone else noticed that our culture has become increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of death?

It wasn’t always this way. The Romans have a story of a servant who was tasked with standing behind a general during his victory parade, repeating “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you will die!” The warriors of Beowulf lived in constant realization of impending fate and were admonished to gain as much glory as possible before their inevitable death. Church bells used to call parishoners to pray for those who would soon depart from the world. The ringing of those bells would provide salvation for John Donne – “this bell calls us all: but how much more me” – but terror for Edgar Allen Poe – “In the silence of the night / How we shiver with affright / At the melancholy menace of their tone!”

But our cemeteries, once kept at the centerpiece of community life, now lie neglected, shoved off to an obscure parcel of land, out of sight, out of mind. The skull, in which the medievals found consolation, is reduced to an icon of rebellion, a trinket of shock value by which the disillusioned teenager may lash out against his parents. Mario was given extra lives in 1985, now we sit in front of a screen, slaying and dying minute by minute, and then get up to make a sandwich. Death is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, bombarding us on a daily basis, but never quite managing to work its way into our understanding.

Not only has death been banished, but so have his friends – injury and risk. The outdoors is a dangerous, risky place; it is much better to stay indoors and avoid the risks innate to encountering nature on her terms. Wrestling is frowned upon, climbing a tree is dangerous, and heaven forbid a group of boys nail some spare lumber together in a tree!

We live in a risk-averse society and, in a bizarre way, it makes sense. In our tech-savvy world, we think we’ve brought nature under our control, but death remains – one last unknown frontier. Death taunts the secular mind, reminding him that for all of his desires to take control of his own life and fashion himself into his own image, there is one thing that will always be outside of his control. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”

Christians, however, embrace death, because we are convinced of its role in carrying us onto glory. “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume,” says John Donne. “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.”

We do not cast death away from our mind, then, but lift high a memorial to our mortality, and thereby God’s immortality. We do not rage against the dying of the light, but rest in death’s sweet embrace, that we may rest in the eternal embrace of one who died for us.

Memento mori – remember, you die – and worship.

By Nick Barden
Picture: Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne (1671).

1 comment:

  1. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? -1 Cor. 15:54-55