This is our weekly theological article.
For most of my life I have had a great affinity for cemeteries and graveyards. A gentle stroll through the neat and peaceful rows of graves, pausing occasionally to read the inscription on the headstone of someone who lived and died long before I was born has been the source of great pleasure for me.
I believe cemeteries and graveyards are important for two reasons. First, they are incredibly artistic. One cannot help but notice the well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, the magnificent sculpting’s of the headstones, and the often-poetic rhetoric of the epitaphs. Second, I believe that cemeteries and graveyards provide people with a physical connection with their cultural heritage and allows them to tap into their ancestral past. As Doctor Celestina Sagazio, a historian working for Melbourne’s Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, observed, cemeteries and graveyards provide a clue into the daily lives of people throughout history.
Modern culture has little time for the contemplation of death. That would go against ‘positive thinking’ and the perpetual lie of ‘eternal youth.’ This, however, stands in stark contrast with the convictions of most of our forebears. From antiquity through to the early twentieth century, the consideration of death was considered a good motivator for leading a virtuous and meaningful life. Recent studies affirm this belief, finding that the contemplation of one’s own mortality acts as a motivator for assessing one’s values and goals and can greatly improve physical health.
The phrase, ‘Memento Mori’, is said to have originated with the Ancient Romans. Tradition in Ancient Rome dictated that a servant or slave should stand behind a triumphant General during his victory parade. This servant or slave would whisper in the General’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento Mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”).
Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the concept of ‘Memento Mori’ took on new motifs. The engraving, ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1539) by Georg Pencz (1500 – 1550) depicted a scythe-wielding skeleton commanding an oxen-driven chariot. Similarly, the dance of death – involving skeletal figures – lead everyone from the Pope to the humble ploughman in a final dance of death. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many New England graves were adorned with epitaphs like ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Hora Fugit’ (‘the hour flees’) and were emblazoned with images of skulls, bones, winged death’s heads, hourglasses, and other symbols of death and the passage of time.
The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca (4BC – AD65) advised: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” The careful contemplation of mortality and the deliberate awareness of death has a profoundly positive effect on the health and vitality of the soul.