Memento Mori and the Truths of Life

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“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate shortly before sentencing Jesus the Nazorean to death. Pilate’s rhetorical question was a cynical reflection on the nature of truth in a culture that made its own reality through argument or force. To Pilate and his contemporaries, “truth” was subjective and relative; Jesus’ fellow Jews effectively manifested his guilt through their own form of power.

Some things never change. We’ve been manifesting our own “truths” from the beginning and continue to argue “my truth” versus “your truth” in all degrees.

Despite the rhetorical, or power-based manifestations of truth, there are in fact, absolute truths. Things are said and done. Things happen and things don’t happen. For example, death happens. It is an absolute truth. No amount of sophistry will change the reality of the end of life.

We celebrated the life of our friend, Steve, yesterday. For those of you who follow my posts, I referenced him last week, and was very happy to gather with his family and friends to remember him, and encourage his wife, Ronda. The truth of death is not pleasant in what it takes away from us. However, the truth of love is a beautiful counterpoint, and death’s reality magnifies it for those who gather in its spirit. Reflecting his simple, unassuming, nature, there was no pomp or fuss – just people, food, stories, some tears, and lots of laughter.

The truth of Love is a beautiful counterpoint.

The expression “memento mori” is Latin for “remember death.” A famous Albrecht Durer engraving of St. Jerome depicts the theologian in his study with a skull sitting on a window ledge – symbolism present to remind him of the truth of this life and his own belief in the Resurrection. I’m reminded of a line from the Russell Crowe movie, Gladiator: “What you do in this life echoes in eternity.” The truth of the end is inevitable, the choices we make are not.

I was recently reintroduced to the expression “memento mori” when purchasing tickets for Depeche Mode’s new concert tour entitled “Memento Mori.” Now, more than 40 years from when they started making music, this group has traveled great distance through life, experiencing the full spectrum of celebrity success, excess, and loss; in particular, the loss of the third member of the trio last year.

The last time we saw the group perform was just over 20 years ago, and I was struck by a sense of time’s passing as we sat amongst the throng of middle-aged fans enjoying the aging musicians very dynamic performance. Forty years of music flashed before our ears, and the arc of experience revealed itself in subject, tone, and lyric. They played a few songs from their new album, the first of which references soul, shrines, and cosmos. The second song, references “the ride” and “angels” – the musings of twisted mystics who have walked the path to maturity.

The photo for this post is a bit of a memento mori in that the skull is on our piano next to a collection of photos of our deceased grandparents. The photos are of them as couples, late in life but still smiling, full of mature joy, in moments before their own ends. The truth remains: if we are lucky enough to live that long, the end of this life will still come.

In his book, From Strength to Strength, author Arthur C. Brooks opens with a story of a famous man, now in his old age, who he encounters on a flight as he overhears the man’s wife say “It’s not true that no one needs you anymore.” He goes on to observe that this individual, who was widely known and had seemingly lived a wildly successful life, was feeling worthless and no longer relevant. The author wonders, “why?” The book is about Brooks quest to answer that question.

The central point to the book is that we begin to decline physically, and even professionally, far earlier than we realize. Brooks points out our inevitable decline as a truth. There is no escaping it. However, he goes on to argue that the trick isn’t fighting it, raging at it, or denying it, but acknowledging it and anticipating it. Along the way, we learn that amid the various stages of life we move through, the issue is less about what we are losing as we age and more about how we measure the value, or success, of our life.

Brooks argues that it is our ultimate fear of death that fuels much of our angst about our own decline as well as our society’s obsession with avoiding it, covering it up, or pretending it isn’t happening. Our culture struggles to value old age and we struggle to see the beauty and possibility of what it offers. The truth is that it is happening. The truth is also that we are not helpless bystanders in how we respond to it. Along the way, he gives us some thoughts on navigating the decline and maximizing our shift into old age – moving from strength to strength.

What is truth? Personally, I cannot contemplate death or decline outside of my Christian faith. For me, that is the way and the truth and the life. However, regardless of your beliefs, the end is inevitable and memento mori is as relevant today as ever. The truth is that life will be more fulfilling in seeing the end for what it is and approaching the “now” with that clarity. Not in fear and trembling, but in clear-eyed hope that, whatever state you find yourself in, there is value in your life, and in your capacity to do something meaningful with it.

No matter where we find ourselves, faith, hope, and love, can be our truths. The people in our lives. The strength in our limbs. The clarity in our minds. The beauty and value of our experience. The living example that is our existence – from beginning to end. The gifts of all the above that can be shared…to whatever extent possible. Those are the truths. And, the opportunities that remain.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jennifer

    I love how you bring in so many musical/musician references into your writing. It speaks of you and your appreciation of music and the deep emotions/realizations it brings forth. Prayers for the many families you have addressed due to losses this year.

  • Rebecca Seifert

    Phil, I want to second Jennifer’s comment – totally agree. It saddened me to learn of Ronda’s husband’s passing. Take care through your life’s journey. Keep up the good work.

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