In a collection of memoirs by Brethren and Mennonite writers, Making a Difference in the Journey (Cascadia, 2015), Shirley Hershey Showalter, a former president of Goshen College, quotes a personal mission statement she chose while a friend was dying: “My mission is to prepare for the hour of my death one good day at a time and to help others do the same.”
There’s a Latin phrase for this awareness of mortality: Memento mori. Remember you must die.
The phrase comes from a tradition of ancient Rome. After a military victory, the triumphant general basked in the cheers of the masses as his chariot led a procession through the streets of the capital city. The crowds idolized the general, even worshiped him as a god.
But, riding in the same chariot, standing behind the general, was a slave. His task: to whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember you are mortal. Remember you must die.”
This reminder of mortality tempered the general’s pride. The moment of adoration and fame would soon end. For all his godlike status, he was no different from other men. Both he and the slave would share the fate of mortals.
Once a year, we’re told that we too will die. Ash Wednesday’s mark of penitence on our forehead signifies our mortality. In the weeks that follow, throughout Lent, we live in the shadow of these words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
No one likes to think about death. But the purpose is not to be morbid or cause fear. We need the ritual of ashes to overcome our aversion to facing our mortality. Lent is a season to ask: How shall I live with purpose in the time I have been given?
Psalm 90:12 suggests awareness of death teaches us how to live: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Numbering our days means recognizing that they are limited. That life is short. Yes, our days are numbered.
This knowledge leads us to spend our time wisely. Counting our days, we try to make the days count. We might ask: What do I want to happen in my life before I die? What can I do today to move a little closer to fulfilling my purpose?
Awareness of death as a spur to action gains power from the biblical promise that nothing we do for good is wasted. “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Knowing that God values our efforts encourages us to persevere.
When do memento mori moments happen? Certainly when a loved one dies. If our church has an adjacent cemetery, columbarium or memory garden, memento mori thoughts arise when we pass by the sacred space. The names inscribed there remind us of the cloud of witnesses, ancestors in the faith, who inspire us by their example.
Contemplation of death becomes a spiritual discipline. Rather than turn away, we learn to welcome the voice that whispers, “Remember you will die.”
Death is a great enemy, especially when it comes too early. But it is an enemy Christ defeated. The 17th-century poet John Donne wrote: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Knowing there’s light in the shadow of death helps us number our days and make them count.