Memento mori (/məˈmɛntoʊ ˈmɔːri/, mə-MEN-toh MOR-ee) is a Latin phrase that translates to something like remember death or remember that you die. My understanding is that it was a common mantra among stoic philosophers as a tool of reflection; how we understand death, life, and mortality can have a profound impact on how we live.
Memento Mori and Christianity
Christianity often has a lot to say about life and death, so it’s understandable that memento mori found its way into Christian philosophy. The concepts of eternal life, rebirth, new creation, and dying to oneself beg consideration of life and death.
As I was learning about memento mori, I came across some quotes from Seneca, a famous Stoic philosopher, and they prompted a reimagining of life and death, which led to questions about death in relation to eternal life. I invite you to reimagine things with me.
Life vs. Death
As far as I can remember, life and death have always been presented to me as mutually exclusive. Death is the absence of life, similar to how darkness is the absence of light or cold is the absence of heat. They aren’t opposites, per se, but they don’t overlap. They don’t coexist. They can’t occupy the same space. (Maybe that’s why people are so fascinated with zombies.)
If you’re a particularly precise person, you might be thinking that this is an over simplification of darkness, light, cold, and heat, and I agree with you. It’s also an over simplification of life and death. Nevertheless, that’s how many people view it, but I want to completely reimagine the relationship between life and death.
In America, there’s a lot of dualism; we pick two things and pit them against each other, but what if we didn’t do that. What if, instead of life vs. death, we laid them on top of each other? What if life and death aren’t static descriptions or momentary events but processes? More than that, what if living and dying are actually the same process?
Living Is Dying
This is our big mistake, to think we look forward to death; most of death is already gone, whatever time has passed is owned by death.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Seneca argues that we perceive the momentary event of dying (of passing from “life” into “death”) improperly; we have an incorrect posture toward death. Rather than the moment, itself, being the event of death, our entire lives are a process of death. We are, he suggests, from the moment of our births, engaged in the process of dying. Memento mori: remember death. All of life is a journey within that inevitable reality.
This struck me. I’d considered the idea that we’re dying from the moment we’re born. I’d considered the fact that the very act of breathing slowly kills us. I’d considered that no one can live a perfectly healthful lifestyle 100% of the time, but “dying” meant moving toward a specific moment. We are dying metaphorically, because we’re headed in the direction of a far off thing called death. I had even considered the adage that life is short — that death isn’t so far off as it might seem.
What I hadn’t considered was that “whatever time has passed is owned by death” — that I have “died” for 36 years, already. It’s a subtle but powerful shift that brings the reality of death from the future into the present. Death becomes the reality of living; living is dying.
Then, I noticed that Seneca talks about it both ways:
The final hour when we cease to exist does not itself bring death; it merely of itself completes the death-process. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The moment is the completion of the death-process, yet the very next sentence leans into the journey metaphor I used above. I’m no Seneca expert, so I can’t speak to his intention, here, but imagine with me that the journey metaphor doesn’t override the process metaphor. Imagine that the journey is like an athlete who spends her whole life mastering her sport.
The moment she steps onto the Olympic field isn’t the moment she becomes a soccer player; the process of journeying toward the Olympics is also the reality of being a soccer player. Similarly, arriving at the moment of death isn’t the moment when death becomes reality; the process of journeying toward that moment is also the reality of dying.
No day, no minute, no second once dead can be revived.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Living well, then, isn’t separate from dying well. When we view living and dying as the same process, living well and dying well are also the same process.
That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
I’ve heard people talk about dying with dignity or dying gracefully, but Seneca suggests that living well is the manifestation of knowing how to die well. This entire thought exercise may seem rather morbid, but I submit to you that many of us already think this way about the moment of death.
When the moment of a person’s death becomes imminent, how do we imagine one “dies well?” Is there thrashing and weeping? Is there rebellion against imminent death or denial of it’s imminence? Is there acceptance? Is there determination or resolve? Does one lash out at loved ones? Does one offer comfort to others?
In other words, we already have ideas about dying well. Having a posture toward living as being the process of dying, and vice versa, doesn’t replace the concept of dying well. Instead, it stretches it across a lifetime so that how we die well is also how we live well.
The practice of memento mori isn’t just a matter of humility or even primarily about humility. Memento mori meditates on the inevitability of death not merely for the sake of being “realistic” about our limitations but because how we imagine death affects how we imagine life.
It seems to me that many of us pit life against death in ways that cause us to become increasingly fearful as we grow older. We moralize both; life often becomes “good” and death becomes “bad.” This seems common for Christians; one of our major themes is eternal life over and against eternal death. How can we learn to die well when we moralize dying as bad? Should we strive to be great at something bad?
When we reimagine living and dying as one and the same, it’s harder to moralize dying as bad, because that would also imply that living is bad. (Some Christian traditions have done this.) It seems to me that memento mori can lead toward a non-moralized view of life and death that emphasizes the way we journey through the process rather than the moment of death.
Memento mori; memento vivere. Remember death; remember life.
Memento Mori and Eternal Life
Memento mori and eternal life (as presented by many traditions of Christianity) may seem incompatible. Eternal life is often presented as something that happens after death, because: life vs. death. Like with Seneca’s reflections, the metaphor exists in scripture that compares life and death as separate things, but so does the language of an overlapping reality.
And so on. Again, this isn’t to say scripture doesn’t talk about the event of dying and something that happens after that event. Christ, for example, was raised from the dead, which refers to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, physical events with spiritual implications. Some passages also situate eternal life in the future — in the coming age ( Luke 18:30).
Still, to be alive in Christ is also talked about as a present reality ( John 5:24; 17:3). It reminds me of the “now and not yet” posture of Paul; there is both a present reality of the Kingdom and new creation and a future reality yet to be realized. I think this dual metaphor also fits better with scripture’s metaphor of the Way.
When living and dying are the same, living/dying well is about the way we move through life. Similarly, the New Testament calls people into the Way. Many conservative traditions boil this down to obedience, but it seems to me that the writers of scripture argue for more. The goal is transformation — a New Creation that lives into the Way, the Truth, and the Life revealed in the Christ. That is the same Christ that John calls the Word, which was in the beginning with God and through whom life came into being.
Dying and Living in the Christ
Memento mori. Remember death that we may die well, and in so doing, we may live well. A claim of Christianity is that to live well is to live into the Way, revealed through the Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God — a present Way in present reality, yet transformed in newness, pruned and refined, with a promise of a future reality.
We die and we live with Christ, in Christ, both now and later — the process of eternal life.
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