Memento Mori

Halloween is the favourite holiday of some of my favorite people and yet it’s still my least favourite holiday. Which I guess just goes to show that people are different, and we can still be friends, right?

From my perspective, at minimum, Halloween decor detracts from the natural gorgeousness of New England in autumn. (I know–not everyone gets to experience New England in autumn. Also, I’m trying to be tactful.) More significantly, I really do believe that there are malicious spiritual forces in the world, and that All Hallows’ Eve is often a time when, intentionally or not, those forces get platformed or even invoked, and that’s just not what I’m about. Also, my historic Christian perspective on death tells me that death is the Great Enemy, the end result of human sin, an unnatural blight on God’s original creation, and what Jesus overcame through His own death and resurrection.

That said, to the extent that Hallowe’en gives us a chance to think about death in any serious way, I believe it’s important–because I believe Jesus overcame death but people still die in the “now and not yet” in which we have been existing since that moment. Memento mori, as the Medievals counseled. In Jesus, those who have been reconciled to God will “put on immortality,” but we’ve all got to wrestle with our mortality first. I’m not interested in glorifying death. But I’m not interested in pretending it won’t happen or sentimentalizing it, either.

Last weekend Paul and I visited, among other places, one of the oldest burial grounds for European-background people in our nation. All the stones were old. Some were broken to bits and completely illegible. Some had been encased in other stone so that wouldn’t happen to them. Most of the oldest ones which were still intact had the fascinating, folk-artsy death’s-heads or angels inscribed at the top of the stone, above the name or names.

(I really really want to know who Bathsheba Drew was. She seems to have lived longer than most of the other women of her era and I didn’t see even one other stone with this design.)

After about 1795, however (which art-and-literature types will note is roughly the start of the Romantic Era), the headstone toppers changed. No more angels. No more skulls. No more hints of blessing or horror or afterlife or spiritual realities at all. Just urns and weeping willows–even on the headstone of Abigail Judson, third wife of Adoniram, the first Baptist missionary from the Americas.

I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions from this observation, nor am I even aware of all the permutations of views on death from the 1600-1700’s through the Romantic and Victorian eras to whatever the general population’s perception of death is today. But there’s been a transition, and these days I think I see on the one hand an obsession with death and on the other a complete avoidance of even the word.

In a world where plurality of belief is increasingly dominant, I don’t suppose we could ever come to a consensus about what death really is, means, or leads to. But I do kind of wonder if, on these shores at least, the drift from the spiritual mysteries surrounding death (the drift from death’s-heads to willow trees), has also compromised our ability to see what life is, means, and leads to. Jesus defeated death by looking it straight in the face, going through it, and coming out “more” alive on the other side. A Christian’s hope is to do the same thing. But maybe some of that is meant to happen in the here and now. We remember our death so that we can fully live.

Published by Jennwith2ns

Jesus person. Wife and step-mom. Daughter, sister, auntie, friend. Collector of stories: mine, yours, tangible, not... Pastor of Central Baptist Church, founder and spiritual director at The Pilgrimage, and author of Trees In The Pavement and Favored One.

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