Humanity   ·   Psychology   ·   Theology

Memento Mori: How the Art of Death can Help us Live Better

Our Christian ancestors did not shy away from the topic of death. Were they being morbid or was there deeper wisdom in this approach to dealing with our inevitable death? This article looks at how an ancient practice can answer modern questions. Read Story

Published by

Sam Thiessen

Sam's days are filled with all things content marketing - from writing to social media management to video production. His nights are much more exciting and usually involve spending time with his wife and two daughters, plotting freelance success, and exploring biblical cosmology.

Memento Mori

Far away, across an ocean and thousands of miles, stands a sanctuary unlike any other. The space is cavernous and the voices of worshipers echo against the ancient walls. As you enter, the sanctuary is shrouded in the smoke of incense as candles flicker in the draft. It takes some time, but eventually, your eyes adjust to the concealing darkness and the absolute foreignness of this worship space becomes obvious. The walls are not brick or stone but bone – human bone. Such a realization is enough to make a visitor feel lightheaded and want to get away from such a morbid place. What kind of religion builds such a monstrous worship space? Perhaps we think of Satanists or some extreme death cult. But this is a Christian sanctuary – much to the shock of many unfamiliar with the strange tradition of ossuaries.

Chapel of Bones
Capuchin Crypt: By Dnalor 01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32641593

Or imagine you are exploring the ancient Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and you come across a large mural against the back wall. This is a Christian cemetery from the fourteenth century, so surely the mural will be of Jesus. Or maybe Lazarus or some other comforting figure from Biblical history. But no, the mural is a series of grinning skeletons leading people into their graves. Kings, priests, peasants, and children are all joining hands with the dead in a grim dance – the danse macabre. What place does this ghoulish work have in a Christian burial ground?

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre: Woodcut by Hans Holbein

Or closer to home, gravestones across New England from the colonial Puritan era are adorned with winged skulls and crossbones. But these aren’t the gravestones of Salem witches, they are found in churchyard cemeteries. The otherwise iconoclastic Puritans of early America found room in their theology for these grim reminders of death on their grave markers.

So what’s going on here? Where these Christians obsessed with death? Were they influenced by morbid pagan worship? Or were they on to something that we have lost in the modern world? All the above are examples of what is often called memento mori. At the most basic level, memento mori is a call to contemplate our mortality. The term itself is a Latin phrase that means ‘remember you too will die.’ This contemplative attitude was encouraged by a wide range of artistic reminders and put our Christian ancestors in mind of our unfailing tendency toward death. In this article, we will briefly consider at memento mori as a Christian practice, speculate on why it disappeared in the modern age, and look for ways to restore a bit of strangeness to the modern Church.

What Happened?

So what happened? How did we get from the Chapel of Bones to megachurches with coffee shops is their foyer? It is always hard to separate cause and effect when looking at historical trends, and so I’ll throw out a flurry of circumstances, worldviews, and ideas that helped to shape a radical shift in the Christian imagination. Tracing the exact course of the decline of memento mori is less important than seeing the cultural stew that allowed the decline – and understanding what that means for the modern mind.

First, the modern era has seen a steady increase in life expectancy – from under 40 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to pushing 80 today in the United States. It is easier to push the contemplation of death from our minds when we just aren’t faced with this reality at the same rate as our ancestors.

Second, this increase is life expectancy has been coupled with the outsourcing of palliative care and post-death services. What once happened in the next room now happens in hospitals and funeral homes. The grim reality of dealing with a corpse is gone – instead, a simple phone call brings the professionals to take care of everything.

Third, our cultural apostasy from the Christian faith has made death an uncomfortable topic to consider. We, as a people, have been drifting from the Church for generations – and that drift required turning a blind eye to spiritual realities, including the contemplation of our death and what comes after.

These three factors combined in the perfect storm, washing away an ancient practice of the Church. And in their absence, people are looking for ways to ease the ache that gnaws at every living soul. In our culture, we see two conflicting worldviews raging to replace the truth of the Christian practice: hedonism and death worship.

You Can’t Ignore Death

We’ve been pushing death out of our cultural consciousness for a long time and the results haven’t been good. Like most things that are bad for us, it felt good at first – even freeing. But eventually the consequences catch up and the good times come crashing down. Death is the result of sin and it is unwise to ignore the growing debt we rack up in our rebellion against the most holy God – but that’s just what we do when we refuse to consider our own inevitable death.

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Against this acknowledgment of death, we have two common defenses. The first is hedonism which seeks to stuff as much carnal pleasure into life as possible. Death is always lurking in the background, but its presence is obscured by a cloud of pleasure seeking. The second is an unhealthy obsession with death – a form a nihilism that also incorporates occult practices and Satanic imagery. An examination of either worldview is beyond the scope of this article, but a quick look at each will help to shape a Christian response to our modern situation.

The hedonist chases after every pleasure. The knowledge of death may start the hedonist on this path, but suppressing that knowledge quickly becomes the goal. Nothing ruins a bender faster than the reality check of death and the judgment to follow. To the hedonist, the Church has an obligation to remind them of the wages of sin. The day of their death will inevitably come, will they be prepared? Against attempts to ignore death, the Church knows the truth and should not be ashamed to proclaim it through word, art, and practice.

Others have reacted against the willful blindness of the hedonists and fixed their gaze completely on death. The culture that grows up around this unhealthy obsession is ugly and dark – and generally demonic in its direction. But they are reacting against the real problems of those who ignore death completely. To the death-obsessed, the Church can offer balance and hope. To those who are caught in this darkness, a sugar-coated gospel does no good. They need to hear the whole truth – an acknowledgment of death but also the promise of resurrection and death's defeat by the pierced hand of Jesus.

So how can the Christian Church recover a full-orbed view of our own death that answers both the hedonists and the death-obsessed? In part, we can recover some of the practices of memento mori from the historical church (while avoiding their own pitfalls) and be a people defined by both living and dying well.

Living and Dying Well

The Christian church is a weird place. It's easy to forget that because it feels like home to us. But to the non-Christian we're weird; our practices, tradition, and liturgy all set us outside the cultural mainstream of the modern West. The temptation is always there to minimize our weirdness and blend in. But when those around us are embracing hedonism and nihilism, being weird is a good thing. And so the first step toward restoring a healthy perspective on death is to embrace our weirdness. I will get into some practical memento mori ideas below, but we should know that we'll get strange looks for being willing to talk openly about death in our modern context.

Embracing the weird will take a corporate commitment to build a distinctive culture that is strong enough to hold up against pressure. Reminding hedonists that they will die will create a backlash and there are a lot of hedonists in our world – and even in our churches. We need to have the relationships and institutions in place to hold fast to our beliefs when they are treated with scorn by those around us.

So enough big picture stuff. How can our churches create little moments of memento mori in today's world?

First, we can work to include memento mori into Christian art. Thomas Kinkade has a place but so does the Danse Macabre by Hans Holbein (pictured above). There are some good songs on Christian radio, but when was the last time you heard lyrics like this, “I have resolved to write about the contempt of the world, that the now living will not bide their time in vain things. Now is the hour to rise from the evil sleep of death...You will be a vile corpse, why not avoid sinning?” from the fourteenth-century work Ad Mortem Festinamus1? We should seek to reflect the whole truth of God in our art, not just the parts that make us feel warm and fuzzy.

Second, the church can be a place where death is not hidden away. Make the needs and requests of the dying known among the congregation, volunteer with end-of-life care through local hospice ministries, and make funeral services available (preferably for free) to the public. Being experts in death might sound like a morbid thing, but it is absolutely true of the Christian church. A world that ignores death at every turn will be lost when it comes upon them – the church has an opportunity to minister in that space. In the longer view, local churches can pursue locations that would allow for a return to traditional church graveyards, so that worshipers have a visual reminder of death as they enter the church.

Third, we can incorporate memento mori into our liturgical practices. This will look different within different traditions, but consider observing the Church calendar as a way to begin incorporating healthy discussions of death into the culture. Big observances like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are an obvious starting point, but the Church's cycle of feasts and commemorations provides plenty of opportunities to consider death – both ours and those who came before us.

When the Church ignores the topic of death, we are robbing the world of something a healthy soul must contemplate. This is not a call to be morbid or death-obsessed, but a call to speak the whole Gospel to a fallen world – both the wages of sin and the gift of grace. This short article is just a look in the direction of restoring a healthy view of death – just the beginning of a (much-needed) conversation. I'd love to hear how you or your Church deals with these issues in the comments below.

References:
  1. “The Music from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat.” Llibre Vermell (Texts), dick.wursten.be/Vermell_originaltexts_translations.htm.

Published by

Sam Thiessen

Sam's days are filled with all things content marketing - from writing to social media management to video production. His nights are much more exciting and usually involve spending time with his wife and two daughters, plotting freelance success, and exploring biblical cosmology.

7 Comments

  1. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…” The god of the dead has been known variously as Osiris, Seb, Saturn, or Thanatos, and is indicated by the skull and crossbones. Neither death imagery nor graves nor any fragment of the dead (e.g. relics necessary for mass in the RCC) should have anything to do with the worship of the God of the living. Contact with the dead made one unclean for seven days, and it was expressly forbidden to have men’s bones near the temple/tabernacle to make a clean break with those other religions. Venerating the dead does not honor God, and praying to them for favor as they do in the RCC is necromancy.

    I’m also reminded of maranasati, the Buddhist contemplation of death by viewing bodies in different stages of decomposition. So exposure to death can lead to desensitization as much as to fear. And for believers in Christ, should there be any fear in death? But scoffers have reason to fear.

    I agree that a sugar-coated gospel message is not doing people any favors. Jesus recognized that many would refuse to come to him, though life is found only in him. Outside is death, sooner or later.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the feedback – I think you bring up several good points that I should have further clarified in my article. In response, I’ll throw out a few ideas that will (hopefully) clarify where I’m at on this topic and then address a few of your concerns specifically.

      First, I think there are two questions we need to keep separate: what is permissible in Christian worship and what is permissible more broadly for a Christian community. When I write of ‘the Church,’ I am generally referring to the second – although I do touch on formal worship a few times. In my view, there are many things that are good for a Christian community to pursue that would be improper in gathered worship. Finding artistic ways to remind our community about the reality of death is a healthy endeavor; using human bones as elements in worship would not be right. Hopefully that gets at the distinction I’m trying to make.

      Second, I think the Bible presents a complex picture of death. I don’t want to get into a full defense of this idea here, but maybe a few examples will get at my point. In one sense, death is an enemy (Rev. 20:14) and nearly synonymous with sin (Rom. 5:12). But in another sense, death is the path that every Christian is called to walk (Mark 8:34) and it is by death (of a substitute) that we gain access to God (Lev. 1/Heb. 9). I’m not sure how to hold all that together, but I think it requires deep contemplation on our part – which is what I’m going for.

      Third, we already have death imagery deep within the DNA of the Christian church. And so, on one level, the question is about how much/what forms of death imagery we will allow. Crosses remind us of the painful death of Jesus, baptism unites the recipient with Jesus in his death, the Lord’s Supper is conducted as a memorial of his sacrificial death. Perhaps we should draw the line at Jesus’ death, but what of the scriptural call to follow in his path? What of the reminders of our own mortality as a call to repentance?

      Fourth, I’ll address a few of your specific concerns:
      “‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…’ The god of the dead has been known variously as Osiris, Seb, Saturn, or Thanatos, and is indicated by the skull and crossbones.”
      The passage quoted (Mark 12:27) tells of Jesus’ rebuke of the Sadduccess for their denial of the resurrection. Taken in that context, it does not limit God’s rule to the realm of the living but makes a statement about the condition of the patriarchs after their death. The one true God rules over all – both living and dead. The existence of Osiris among the old gods does not limit the Triune God’s authority over all things.

      “Neither death imagery nor graves nor any fragment of the dead (e.g. relics necessary for mass in the RCC) should have anything to do with the worship of the God of the living.”
      As I argue above, death imagery is already intimately linked with Christian worship. Crosses, baptisms, the Eucharist, and manifold scripture passages speak of death – it is unavoidable. I have no desire to use fragments of the dead in worship and would agree that it is an abominable practice. However, as a side note, a Roman mass does not require the use of relics.

      “Contact with the dead made one unclean for seven days, and it was expressly forbidden to have men’s bones near the temple/tabernacle to make a clean break with those other religions.”
      This gets into a big topic that I have spent a lot of time studying. But I will make a few brief comments. Contact with corpses made one unclean under the old covenant because they lived under the full force of the curse and physical defilement spread through physical contact. The regulations had almost nothing nothing to do with the beliefs of the surrounding nations, instead they were put in place to teach Israel about the spiritually defiling affects of sin.
      While there were no human corpses around the temple, it was certainly a place of death. The priests continually offered sacrifices on the altar there. Who would not feel the call to contemplate their own death as the countless animals were killed for the daily offerings?
      And in the New Covenant, the clean/unclean elements of the law given to Moses have been done away with through the cleansing of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The curse is being reversed and we are no longer defiled through physical contact with corpses and unclean things (see Matt. 9:20-22 and 1 Cor. 7:14).

      “Venerating the dead does not honor God, and praying to them for favor as they do in the RCC is necromancy.”
      If by venerating the dead, you mean the placing some superstitious value on their physical corpse then I would agree. But if by venerating the dead, you mean holding up departed saints as examples of Godly living then I think Hebrews 11 proves it a godly exercise.

      Finally, a few summarizing thoughts. I started my article with some shocking examples of memento mori that I would never endorse and I should have been more clear on that. I do believe that is scriptural to be mindful of our own deaths and I believe that art and liturgy are two of the best ways to accomplish that. My proposal is a modest one – to give Christians the vocabulary to contemplate death through the things that form us.
      Thanks again for your comment, it was both encouraging and challenging.

  2. I agree that we shouldn’t swing to hedonism on one side or obsession on the other, but death should be matter of fact, not a subject for artistic veneration. Death is an enemy and is eventually thrown into the Lake of Fire. I have to agree with Mike Anderson on this one.

  3. Great article, Sam. I’m glad for the clarifying statements you made in the comments as well (glad to know you don’t endorse sanctuaries made with bones 😉 ).

    I think it is really important for Christians to come to grips with death. For my part, I remember becoming very tired of the ‘happy-sunshiny’ disposition of many people that seemed to simply ignore death (whether Christian or otherwise) as it seemed forced or at the very least naive. I recognize that much of my reaction was borne out of immaturity and pride, however, it did indeed push me a bit into a poor obsession with death that I later had to work on balancing out.

    The Gospel indeed *should* bring us joy and I’m thankful for Christians today that have that gladness in their hearts, but a large part of that happiness stems from recognizing what it is we are saved from – death. When we contemplate this it should be a bittersweet moment as we should also become more fully aware that there are some that not saved from this and we should be pushed to share the Gospel more. I think that contemplating our mortality is good both for bringing us a thankful heart and for encouraging us to reach out to others.

    “On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more. On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.” -C.S. Lewis

    1. Thanks Paul! I hate finding CS Lewis quotes after I’ve written on a topic. He always says it better (and in far fewer words) than I could ever dream ☺️

  4. Hi Sam.

    I see that you put a lot work into these posts, as you should. I wasn’t sure I wanted to respond again. I’m a slow writer, and I enjoy new ideas more than riposte.

    For questions of ethics among many other matters, there should be no difference between what is done publicly and privately, or else there could be grounds for hypocrisy. If certain kinds of art displeases God in public, then it would also displease Him in private. I lean toward restrictions on graven images, which today seem ridiculous because we’re not bowing down and petitioning them or the things they represent, and yet they still distract us to the point that some proclaim “Art saves lives!” I say this as a warning to myself as well, since I’m an avid nature photographer. My best photos I regard as gifts from God, though not without danger, but I digress.

    What I really reacted to in your piece was the photo of the catacombs. Christian tradition doesn’t get much of a vote for me, especially when that tradition has been corrupted with syncretism. Most parishioners and priests don’t know that many RCC traditions run contrary to their professed faith in Christ. Sincerity of heart matters, but the Holy Spirit leads and guides the sons of God in all truth, so eventually they will be liable for willful ignorance if they don’t repent. My perspective, which I hope is sufficiently enlightened by the Spirit, is that graves in churches, the relics in every sanctified altar (abusing Revelation 6:9), and the observance of All Saints Day on Samhain are part of a much larger clandestine revolt against the Most High. I want nothing to do with it.

    Jesus stressed that we don’t know when our soul might be required of us, so we should stay ready and faithful. The stress should be on our faithfulness. Consider that the stress was instead on the fear of death for the children of Israel who listened not to Caleb an Joshua, but to the spies who cowered in fear over the giants of Canaan. For those who believe God there is only victory, even when they rest temporarily in death.

    However, we do have to believe what God said and not our misconceptions of what God said. I stand against the charismatic teaching of positive affirmation that supposedly speaks for God, but again I digress.

    I agree that the communion elements represent Christ’s death, and baptism represents our symbolic death in Christ. but they don’t leave us there. We immediately thereafter participate in his life. The temple sacrifices were somewhat bloodier, and thank God Jesus’ sacrifice in the most holy place was once for all time.

    I realize that seven days uncleanness for contact with a corpse is no longer required in the New Covenant, but I hope you can appreciate that this was in place to avoid the veneration of the dead that was common to the other religions, most of which actually had a god of the dead. I think this was in the background of Jesus’ remark to the Sadducees, who were also influenced by Egyptian and Babylonian religion.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the follow up, it helped me to better understand where you are coming from. I think our differences run deeper than we’ll settle over blog comments, so I’ll leave off the debate here ☺️
      I appreciate your commitment to the truth and will continue to contemplate your points. Thanks for the interaction.

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