Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Speaking Out: Memento mori: credo for the ages

By  Mary French, Youth Speak News
  • January 19, 2022

Many young people seem ecstatic to ‘“remember their death.” But this notion is not as dark and grueling as it looks. Instead, it is an invitation to live wholly.

It is the world’s first and longest-lasting trend throughout history, dating beyond the Roman Empire and even to ancient Greek philosophy. This odd fascination and fear for our end lies written in the very hearts of humanity.

Perhaps you’ve seen the phrase “memento mori” on hoodies or in tattoos. The Latin words — meaning “remember your death” — have become quite popular among the young generation in recent years. The words even appeared thematically on the secular YouTube channel Unus Annus. The channel received over four million subscribers and created vlogs and content for one year before its creators intentionally deleted its account. Being so used to having everything constantly at our fingertips, it was a stark reminder that nothing in life lasts forever.

Since ancient times, wisdom tends to reflect on life’s brevity and away from losing oneself in trivial details. Ancient philosophers such as Socrates and the Stoics urged their listeners to develop the spiritual and emotional self, valuing it over the transitory mortal self. Later, in the Roman world, it is believed memento mori was spoken to war heroes during Roman triumph marches.

The phrase continued to be represented across the centuries in art and literature, carried with cultural and religious gravity. Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and many other great minds constructed brilliant and beautiful images, plastered with mortality. Evoking emotional katharsis, they communicate to us how fleeting beauty always masks its impending end, and urge us to reflect on our own mortality.

This phrase has significant history in Christianity as well.

"For you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

“Whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

The Christian reflection on memento mori fills us with hope. Our redemption by Christ means physical death is not our end but only part of our eternal life. We prepare ourselves for our true home by “dying to ourselves” — we shed our selfish disposition for a loving one.

Again and again, our faith reminds us to “watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24:42). Reflections on our end have the power to bring us back to the present, to being “fully awake.”

Living each moment for the precious gift it is, and knowing it could be taken away at any time, we may discover that how we act in and value the present predicts the outcome of our lives. To live knowing we will eventually die prompts us to pose the questions: What do we value? What fulfills us?

So next time you don the phrase memento mori, remember the great significance these words carry through centuries of great minds before us. Regardless of our time, we are all hurtling towards the same destination, all craving our best lives in the present.

In our “spring of youth” we can see the fantastic opportunity and beauty that shakes this earth. To appreciate this all, even in its fragility, is to value the gift of our lives. And so the delicate balance of life and death can be seen as equally valuable parts of what it is to be human.

(French, 23, has a Bachelor’ of Catholic Studies from Seat of Wisdom College and lives in Barrie Ont).

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