Memento Mori

 Detail of the Wall in the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

C.S. Lewis once pointed out, while commenting on the massive fear that accompanied the invention of the nuclear bomb, that all of us were doomed to die whether the bomb existed or not, and that most of us will die in horrible ways. When I first read that it seemed almost funny. It was certainly true. Most of us dream about the “perfect death:” to die peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age. Most desire it, but few achieve it. Very few. My great-grandfather was counted among the lucky ones. He died peacefully at the age of 101. I believe he was making a sandwich when his heart gave out. It happened quickly and presumably without much pain.

But my grandfather wasn’t so lucky when he died. He was in great pain for days before the end. He struggled and moaned under the weight of the painkillers. He could not even put on a brave face for his family: the drugs robbed him of that. It was a horrible way to die. In that sense it was very natural. Most death is horrible.

I don’t find that sentiment as funny anymore.

I have been blessed with getting to know my wife’s grandfather quite well. He lives in the same city where my wife and I went to college, and my wife stayed in a little apartment above his workshop before we got married. I got to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch across from him, watching TV and talking about cars and life. He’s a wonderful man who really loves God and loves others. He also has a wicked sense of humor: when he gets together with his best friend you’d think they were worst enemies the way they toss insults at each other.

For some time now he’s suffered from several different medical conditions. His kidneys keep failing, and he’s been on and off dialysis for years. He finds the dialysis extremely painful, and becomes listless and weak in the days following a dialysis session.  His heart is weak, so blood doesn’t properly circulate in his legs which leads to pain, numbness, and infections. A few months ago one of his legs had to be amputated because of this. He is often in pain, and his “good days” come and go almost unpredictably.

I’ve often thought that it would  be nice to be retired, to be able to sit around and watch TV or work on your hobbies all day. When I look at my wife’s grandfather I can’t be jealous. He has all the time in the world, but most of it is spent in pain. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t work on his cars anymore. Over the past several years he’s been slowly preparing to die. He auctioned off almost all of his tools and his collection of automobile memorabilia. His health is bad, and he’s ready to go. Yet for some reason he’s still here (and my wife and I, and all who love him, are grateful for that). I wonder if this is the kind of death I have to look forward to. Will my twilight years be full of drawn out pain and weakness? Or will my death be like my grandpa’s: an unexpected and terrible end to an otherwise idyllic retirement?

I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll die peacefully while making a sandwich.

All of this seems very morbid, but I think it’s something we need to think about more. Too often we try to insulate ourselves from suffering and death. We try to cut them out of our lives and our thoughts. The medievals had a different value. The prized the memento mori: something to remind us that we will die. Many medieval scholars and priests kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that someday they too would nothing more than bones. Franciscan monks in Portugal made an entire chapel out of human bones to serve as a memento mori to all who entered it. The engraving above it’s door reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: “We bones that are here await your own.”

The simple fact is that we will all die, and we will all suffer. Some of us will suffer greatly before the end. We should not deny this fact but accept it. That way we won’t be dismayed when suffering does come. Instead remember that this world is not the end, that suffering can strengthen us if we let it, and that we can survive more than we might imagine.


About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a YEC, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at

Posted on February 24, 2014, in Christianity, History, Personal. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I wonder if women who’ve been through childbirth don’t have the same fears of real physical suffering as men generally. Having been in so much pain that I wanted to die, I can tell you it’s not that bad. Probably sounds worse than it is.

    • “Having been in so much pain that I wanted to die, I can tell you it’s not that bad. Probably sounds worse than it is.”

      Are you saying childbirth probably sounds worse than it is, or death itself? If it’s death I’d have to agree, and if it’s childbirth I have no opinion on the subject.

      • I’m saying that childbirth prepares women well for death. Maybe that’s why we’re less likely to create religions involving afterlives. I’ll have to ponder that one …

      • That’s…an interesting idea to say the least. I’m not sure why you would say that women are less likely to create religions with afterlives. And are you really trying to say that women are more prepared for death then men because of childbirth (which is a bit dubious: I’m prepared to tentatively agree that they may be more prepared for physical suffering, but death and suffering are not the same thing, though one typically follows the other), and thus any idea of an afterlife is simply grounded in some kind of masculine fear of annihilation? I mean I believe in an afterlife, but I still believe in death and I certainly believe in suffering. Does a Christian experience less physical pain before death than an atheist simply because he has a belief in an afterlife? That seems pretty ridiculous to me, so I don’t understand how it would follow that the afterlife was invented because men can’t handle physical suffering like women can. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not you still suffer.

      • I think you misunderstood me. Our communication styles speak past each other. But you inspired a post, so thanks!

      • I must admit I’ve noticed in our past interactions that we have very different personalities and ways of processing and communicating information. So, you’re welcome!

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