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Memento Mori

By September 21, 2016 3 Comments

Most mornings I drink my coffee on the porch and watch the sun rise over an Amish cemetery across the street.

Some people might find it strange, even creepy, to live next to a cemetery. I find it comforting—especially this cemetery. From late spring to mid-autumn there are about twenty sheep who call the cemetery home, making good use of the hay growing between the gravestones while also eliminating the need for anyone to spend valuable time cutting the grass. It’s a good arrangement from which everyone benefits. There’s no need for an expensive lawn service, no chemicals to maintain a falsely cheerful and manicured grass carpet, no fossil fuels consumed and expelled, and the entire scene reflects a humility and peace befitting a cemetery. It’s pastoral—literally.

I’d like to be buried there, I think. Where sheep may safely graze.

But that musical allusion isn’t quite right. As beautiful as that piece is, it comes from one of Bach’s secular cantatas—the Hunt Cantata. Much better for this context is his “Wachet Auf” cantata—“Sleepers, wake!” Composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, or the last Sunday in the church calendar before Advent, the cantata meditates on the lectionary reading for that day: the parable of the ten virgins.

Please don’t ask me to exegete that parable. It’s a hard one. I get the basic gist of it, though: “Hey, it’s okay if you fall asleep sometimes (we all do), but remember to be prepared (with oil in your lamp!) because when you least expect it, in the dark of the night, someone’s going to call your name—and you’d better be ready.”

The inevitability of our mortality is a common theme in all of the world’s spiritual and wisdom traditions. There’s a Tibetan lojong slogan to this effect that I particularly like: Death comes for everyone. Straightforward and to the point, that. Kind of like “Winter is coming” in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

But the inevitable is still surprising.

My heart has been heavy this week for an old high school friend who lost her husband—only 44 years old—in a car accident. If you’ve been living on this earth for any length of time, then you also probably have a story about Death suddenly visiting someone you love. The bracing shock of it. The utter predictability of its unpredictability. The reorientation of your world in the wake of that apocalypse.

I’ve started to wonder, though, if the eschaton the parable points toward isn’t just a future, ultimate Apocalypse. What if the parable’s eschaton is more ordinary than that? An everyday sleeping from which we should “wake up” over and over again? How much of our everyday living is a kind of living death? We impatient, unkind, smug, thoughtless, suspicious, and selfish zombies?

Someday, on a day not too far from today, a voice will call us to wake up. And we will wake up from this daily death into Love, capital “L”–the only true eschaton.

We might as well wake up today, then.

Wachet auf.


Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College.

Sarina Gruver Moore

Sarina Gruver Moore is a writer in western Pennsylvania.


  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    What a wonderful reflection! I am reminded of something Flannery O’Connor is reported to have said about the “grotesquerie” or her writing: ” I am trying to wake up the sleeping Christians.”

  • Judy Gruver says:

    A beautiful writing. I think you might have used “Sheep May Safely Graze” with French horn at your wedding. All of us here had a connection to your friend who died this week. I am so sorry.

  • Yes! Thank you, Sarina. I think of Rumi:

    For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
    From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
    Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
    Then I walked outside.

    The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
    Don’t go back to sleep.
    You must ask for what you really want.
    Don’t go back to sleep.
    People are going back and forth across the door sill
    where the two worlds touch.
    The door is round and open.
    Don’t go back to sleep.

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