I have a skull on my desk. It’s not a Halloween decoration. The skull sits on my desk all year round. I decided to acquire the little ceramic skull to help me meditate regularly on my death. By now, I’ve been meditating daily on my inevitable and unpredictable death for over two years.
You might be thinking, “Well, that sounds unpleasant.” And you would be partly right. At first it was unpleasant. I hated thinking about my death. Like most people, I had put a lot of energy into avoiding thinking about it. At first as I meditated on my death, I felt anxious and full of doubt. A couple of weeks into the practice, I wondered if I ever should have begun. But, thankfully, I persisted. And I can now honestly say that meditating on my death has changed my life. It has given me focus and motivation to live for the Gospel, helped me to persevere in my vocation, and assisted me to grow in virtue, especially those of faith and hope.
Memento mori or “remember your death” is the Latin phrase long associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of one’s life. This phrase and the symbols and sayings associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval Church. But the practice of remembering death stretches back to the very beginning of salvation history. In the Book of Genesis God says to Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19).
The benefits of meditating on death have been recognized by philosophers and other religious traditions for millennia. For the Christian, however, remembrance of death extends beyond the reality of earthly life and bodily death. Just as death is a doorway to the afterlife, meditation on death is the doorway to meditation on the afterlife, or what have traditionally been called the “Last Things.” Meditation on death, as well as judgment, hell, and heaven, has been encouraged in the Church for centuries. But why should we meditate on these things? Because thinking about the definite end of life—death—necessarily leads to the consideration of life’s possible ends. Meditation on death in this context is not morose but rather becomes a celebration. For those who choose to accept the grace of salvation, death is a positive step, a doorway to heaven.
This time-tested tradition, encouraged by Scripture and the saints, has changed my life, and it can change yours, too. To help people to integrate this hope-filled practice into their lives, I have compiled and written a prayer book, Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things. Whether you use a prayer book or get a skull for your desk (or both!), I encourage you to try meditating on the Last Things for a month or two. I am willing to bet it will change your life—like it did mine.
by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP