Is there ever an appropriate time to contemplate your own death? Like grief, death is a topic most of us prefer not to talk about or even think about. Most of us assume our own deaths will happen at some point in the distant future. Yet, as Wayne Dyer once said, the future is promised to no one.
Most of us will wait until we are at the brink of death’s door to contemplate death. It might happen after a terminal medical diagnosis, a sudden heart attack or illness, or an automobile accident. Or you might live in a warzone, where the specter of death visits you on a daily basis.
But the fact is, no matter your station in life, death is a constant presence. We are nearer to death this year than last year, closer to death today than we were yesterday. During our whole lives we are moving inextricably closer to death. We are not allowed to stop the clock or to go more slowly. Old and young, rich and poor, all are propelled toward death with equal speed.
There are some who regularly practice for their own death.
They are not suicidal—in fact, just the opposite. They contemplate death so that they can better appreciate life. It’s part of an ancient Christian tradition called memento mori (translation: “remember your death”). It has received renewed attention thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of Saint Paul, a Catholic religious order.
Noble has written a book titled Remember Your Death, where she asks us to become aware of our impending death so that we can become better focused on what is real and important in our lives. In her words, the practice “is more about living than it is about dying.” It’s about living each moment not knowing if it’s our last.
Sister Theresa believes that the practice of memento mori is essential because “only God knows when each person will die.” That does not mean going about your day thinking you will die, but recognizing “the possibility that this could come to pass. One day will be our last, and the great majority of us do not know when.” She continues:
No matter how many surgeries we undergo, how much we exercise, or how many vitamins we take, our bodies will break down slowly over time. Indeed, no matter what we do, our bodies will succumb to old age and die.
Spring is an appropriate time to remember our death.
Noble calls out the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday. It kicks off the 40-day season of Lent which ends three days before Easter Sunday. During Ash Wednesday, a priest or pastor dips their finger into a tray of ashes and spreads it on a congregants’ forehead in the shape of a cross. While doing this, they quote the Bible, saying “from dust you came and from dust you will return.” Dust is a metaphor for death.
Sister Thersa tells us that “as Christians, when we contemplate our own death, we also enter into the death of Jesus Christ. We remember death not from our own perspective, but from Christ’s perspective.” And from that perspective, death has been conquered. With the resurrection of Jesus, he has shown us that we all have the ability “to rise with him” and in essence, survive our own death.
You don’t need to be a Christian, for this work for you. Noble informs us that “even if one does not believe in the Christian message of salvation, the rich ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life.” What follows are three compelling notions pulled from Remember Your Death.
3 Reasons to Prepare for Your Own Death
- It can cleanse your soul. When we remember death “it can motivate us to clear grudges, anger, and a desire for retaliation for our souls.” When we are able to forgive others, it can “heal relationships but most importantly, our souls. Forgiveness clears away what stands in the way of our union with God.”
- It can lead to greater humility. When we remember our death, we “truthfully admit we need God’s help,” and are more apt to accept God’s grace. By contrast, when we puff ourselves up with pride, we push away this grace. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” ~Bible, Genesis 3:19
- It can give you greater focus. Through the knowledge that the gift of life can be taken from us at any time, we gain a greater appreciation for our lives. As Sam Harris reminds us in a podcast titled The Lessons of Death, no one knows how much time they have left. “We’re all going to lose everything we have—and we don’t know when.” Since we don’t know how many moments we have left, it makes sense to be mindful of the limited amount of time we do have—and treat these moments like the treasures they are.