In this month of November, as we remember our beloved dead, thoughts might turn somewhat naturally to our own mortality, dying and death. I say “naturally,” because nature’s move into winter – at least in the Northern hemisphere – brings longer darkness and shorter days, falling leaves and frosty temperatures. All these might evoke moments in us in which we are able to confront the fact that our own life, too, will end.
Many Christians before us, however, did not entrust to the course of nature the primary responsibility of reminding them of their own end. Teresa of Avila, for example, had a skull on her table as a “memento mori,” as had many other saints before her and since.
I have my own “memento mori,” and it seems very appropriate to the context in which I live. My “memento mori” is part of a sustainable, “green” burial movement and practice, namely to use as your coffin something recycled from daily life and work. In my case, my coffin-to-be currently serves as a shelf for books in my office. The shelf was built for me and my office, but its shape maintains the semblance of a coffin. Within my shelf-coffin are boards filled with books, which can easily be taken out when the need arises.
I will admit to sitting uneasily in my office chair initially, when my shelf-coffin first arrived. But since then, this green “memento mori” has become very “natural” for me (even if some students continue to be taken aback when they come to see me).
I wonder whether every “memento mori,” however well chosen, will not eventually become so naturalized? In my experience, confronting one’s own finitude – rather than the more general fact of mortality – is hard indeed. Which is why it might actually be helpful to have the month of November to help us with this task.