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Memento Mori

By October 8, 2016 2 Comments

by James Vanden Bosch

One of the heavier costs of watching the evening news on the major U.S. television networks is that my being there to watch the evening news is very strong evidence that I am part of a demographic that is very desirable to certain advertisers. I apparently do not have the will and focus to give my attention to the news only and ignore the regular commercials, and I therefore am regularly faced with informative and persuasive advertising that is based on the knowledge that I am a Baby Boomer or even older, and that I am therefore eager to consume the commercials based on the illnesses and liabilities that vex me and remind me of my mortality, mortality that can very likely be mitigated by finding doctors who will prescribe the meds that will slow down my dying and prolong my life, even if it is a sadly diminished thing.

All of the readers of this blog who watch the nightly news know what I’m talking about. The news brings us a heavy twenty-minute dose of destruction far and near, threats to human prospering that come from weather, sickness, war, and violence, random or matter of fact. And then, to temper our awareness of how much death and destruction is out there, right beyond our living room walls, the ten minutes of commercials provide a kind of pause from the world’s miseries by allowing us to consider our own. You know the litany—COPD, ED, back pain, joint pain, obesity, migraines, depression, diabetes, cancer, side effects of chemotherapy, asthma, heart disease, blood thinners, DVT and PE, Alzheimer’s, dementia (precox and otherwise), incontinence, bloat, diarrhea, not to mention the heartbreak of male-pattern baldness, saggy bodies, and psoriasis—a veritable What’s What of the escort service, the autonomous Lyft driver, threatening to take us unceremoniously down the exit ramp, the last turn of our mortal journey.

Those of us whose memories are still sometimes reliable may recall when our literature or theology professors taught us about the pagan Roman exercise of memento mori—literally, “remember to die”—the practice of using sometimes subtle but mainly forceful reminders that death is inevitable and that it is to our advantage to maintain a heightened awareness of that solid fact so that we aren’t tempted to waste our time or forget to have a real life. Christianity (and most other religions) also made good use of this motif, in literature, art, architecture, and devotional practices.

But the memento mori of the evening news is different. It more than suggests that our lives can be improved by pharmaceutical intervention—it almost promises that what troubles us and destroys our joys as well as our health can be treated successfully. There is everything in these ads to allow us to think that such medical benefits can go on for quite a while—in many cases, this is memento mori without the mori. We may be suffering, but let’s not get hysterical—there’s no need to think that death may be right around the corner from our present symptoms.

jeremy-taylorJeremy Taylor (1613-1667) saw things differently. In 1651, this British preacher  wrote The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, a companion volume to The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, which he wrote in 1650. These were popular devotional books, aimed at helping the reader attain a good life and prepare for a good death. On the latter subject, he is admirably frank. He offers no way out, but only the discipline of the ars moriendi, the art of dying. In the first section of the book he describes memorably the inevitability and the ordinary fact of death:

Death meets us everywhere, and is procured by every instrument, and in all chances and enters in at many doors; by violence and secret influence; by the aspect of a star and the stink of a mist; by the emissions of a cloud and the meeting of a vapour; by the fall of a chariot and the stumbling at a stone; by a full meal or an empty stomach; by watching at the wine or by watching at prayers; by the sun or the moon; by a heat or a cold; by sleepless nights or sleeping days; by water frozen into the hardness and sharpness of a dagger, or water thawed into the floods of a river; by a hair or a raisin; by violent motion or sitting still; by severity or dissolution; by God’s mercy or God’s anger; by everything in providence and everything in manners; by everything in nature and everything in chance. Eripitur persona, manet res; we take pains to heap up things useful to our life, and get our death in the purchase; and the person is snatched away, and the goods remain. And all this is the law and constitution of nature; it is a punishment to our sins, the unalterable event of Providence, and the decree of Heaven. The chains that confine us to this condition are strong as destiny, and immutable as the eternal laws of God.

This is not the bromide provided by the commercials during the nightly news. This is poetic, frank, and bracing: Eripitur persona, manet res*—the mask is torn off, reality remains.

Remember to die—but live without fear of death, because although it is our last enemy, it’s not the last word.

And that’s the news.

*Quoted by Taylor from On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), Book 3, l. 58, by Lucretius (c. 99 BC – 55 BC).

James Vanden Bosch teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Jan says:

    Excellent, Jim. From Rome, where I have had such thoughts while walking on crypts and viewing numerous sculptures of dead people. Such thoughts as these have been frequent.

  • Ron calsbeek says:

    This is great stuff, Jim. I wonder if God laughs or cries at our elaborate, expensive, resource-consuming attempts to extend our lives by months or even years.

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