Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Memento Mori

Yesterday I passed another milestone. On June 24 my Grandma, Maxine Carmichael passed away after 87 years on this earth. On June 30 we said good-bye to her at her funeral and laid her body to rest in the earth outside the small town of Kimball, Nebraska. Her body joins that of her husband, who passed away 21 years ago. My mother’s parents have also both moved beyond this life, so I am now without grandparents. Last year my favorite great-aunt also passed away, the last of her generation in that family.

I’m glad I was able to attend the funeral for my Grandma Carmichael. For various reasons I had not been able to attend the last three funerals: those of my mother’s parents and my great-aunt Fern. In fact the only funeral I had attended prior to this was that of my Grandpa Carmichael. It was good to be present to say good-bye to her, at least indirectly, and to allow the grief to come naturally. There was a sense of closure that I never had with my other set of grandparents. I was also able to see most of my cousins, aunts and uncles, most of whom I had not seen since my grandfather passed away. It’s sad that we see each other only at times like this, but the reality is that we live far apart and have never been particularly close. As we drove away from Kimball that day I realized that there is a strong likelihood I will never visit Kimball again. There simply isn’t any compelling reason to draw me there.

Funerals are difficult for us as Americans because they confront us with the reality of death. As a society we try very hard to ignore this reality. We try to extend our lives as long as possible through various means. We deny the existence of death until we can no longer avoid it. I don’t think this is only an American weakness. Many cultures, especially modern Western ones, don’t handle death well. Part of this comes from the dominant Western materialistic worldview that doesn’t believe in anything beyond this material world. In that worldview, death is a frightening thing because it means the complete cessation of being. It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate.

In earlier centuries European cultures also addressed death more directly. The church in the medieval period used the phrase “Memento Mori” to remind people that they must eventually die and, therefore, should live their lives with this in mind. This is an important bit of wisdom that we have largely lost in our modern culture. We deny the reality of death and because of that we don’t live our lives with the end in mind. We live as though life will go on in the current manner forever. But how would our priorities change, how would our lifestyles be different if we lived every day with the knowledge that this life is but a passing vapor, as Scripture tells us? What would it look like if we lived in the light of eternity? Some books and speakers have dared to remind us of this. Our pastor used a long rope with one inch taped in red. He told us that the red part represented this life—just a short blip. The rest of the rope symbolized eternity, the life beyond this life. If we live believing that the “blip” is the only reality, we will miss out on the opportunities, the wonders and the joy that could be ours in the rest of eternity. But if we live for eternity even during this life, we will place our time, energy and resources into those things that will have eternal value.

Attending my grandmother’s funeral strengthened for me the recognition that I’m not getting any younger. I’m not complaining about this, though I do at times miss some of the aspects of being younger. I’m aware that my life too is passing—and doing so fairly quickly. I could choose to lament this and try to hold on to my youth as long as possible. I certainly don’t think we are wrong to try to take good care of our bodies for the period of this life. But no matter what I do to stay healthy, I will one day finish this race. And when I do I want to enter eternity with the knowledge that I invested my time and energy during this life in the things that will last for the life to come.

Memento Mori

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