Memento mori: Thoughts of death and rebirth in a reminiscent season

The practice of “memento mori”—remembering our own eventual deaths—might be a cause for anxiety. But for the Christian, it should be a means of peace.

(Image courtesy of the author.)

As I sat down to write this, August was almost over. “Big kids” had drifted off to college already, and the “littles”—no longer so little—were sleeping the sleep of the just; enjoying another couple of nights of carefree rest, untroubled by homework, due dates, and crowded schedules. My house was quiet as I took stock of another summer ending.

Each summer, I struggle with melancholy. It usually settles in about a week after school gets out. For a few days, I’m simply relieved that school is over and I can sleep in. Then, like coastal fog, melancholy settles into my soul. The rest of the world is enjoying vacations, barbecues, sun and sand, seemingly without a care. I, however, wake up to sunlight and a persistent sense of sadness that just won’t go away. My mood is more attuned to the days when a cool marine layer masks the morning sun.

Despite this, I have a wealth of cherished summer memories: long, lazy days; unhurried breakfasts; late-evening dinners outside; road trips; afternoons at the beach, sand everywhere; kids, dogs, laughter. But those memories are interwoven with a mild sadness—not the wistful sadness of reminiscence but a sadness that was there while those memories were being made, part of the fabric of each mental scene.

I am not generally a depressed person. In fact, most of the time, I am obnoxiously cheerful. So why does summer bring melancholy?

I’ve concluded that for parents, summer, for all its charm, is a potent reminder of change. It punctuates the transition from grade to grade, from child to teen. It’s a pause between seasons of life.

Summer, for me, has always included a sense of mourning for the season that has ended, anxious anticipation of what lies ahead, and downright distress that childhood is so quickly slipping through my fingers.

I’ve always admired parents who, early on, start consciously prepping their children for a successful, responsible adulthood. I, on the other hand, have always been the parent who tries to slow things down, to hold on to every bit of these years.

Of course, my reluctance to let go has made little difference to my children. They have perversely continued to grow up and expand their horizons. Some have actually—gasp—left the nest, despite my best efforts.

It’s frequently not until school has started in late August that my pervasive sense of dejection evaporates, most likely driven out by the cheerful bustle and new routines of the school year.

This past summer started off like so many others. But as it drew to a close, I realized I had finally made peace with my melancholy summer companion.

Ironically, it was the thought of death that banished the sadness that for so long skulked around the edges of my summertime memories.

A few months ago, as spring slid into early summer, events in my life turned my thoughts toward mortality: a sudden, tragic death; a friend’s illness; heartache at the continued exodus of friends and family from my liberal state to more conservative pastures.

These things turned my mind toward death. My own death. I began to actively reflect on this eventuality. It was a strange mindset for the sunny days of a California June; but then again, my summer mindset has always been a little strange.

I found myself embracing memento mori.

What is memento mori?

Memento mori—“remember that you must die”—is reflecting on the inevitable fact of one’s own death.

Scripture, spiritual writers, and saints recommend this venerable practice. Many recommend that we spend some time each and every day consciously reflecting on our death.

Lent, still months away at summer’s end, begins with a succinct memento mori that hearkens back to Genesis: “Remember man, that thou art dust and to dust you shall return.”

One of the most famous exhortations to memento mori comes from St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

Consider the uncertainty as to the day of your death. One day your soul will quit this body—will it be in summer or winter? In town or country? By day or by night? Will it be suddenly or with warning? Will it be owing to sickness or an accident? Will you have time to make your last confession or not? Will your confessor or spiritual father be at hand or will he not? Alas, of all these things we know absolutely nothing: all that we do know is that die we shall, and for the most part sooner than we expect.

St. Francis de Sales concludes, touchingly, “Gather a bouquet of myrrh.”

Another exhortation, widely cited and variously translated, is St. Augustine’s “Remember Christian Soul:”

Remember, Christian soul, that thou hast this day,
and every day of thy life:

God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
The Angels and Saints to invoke,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to expiate,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death perhaps to suffer,
And Judgment to undergo.

Many of us unconsciously practice memento mori as we say the Rosary—repeating the petition “pray for us now and at the hour of our death” as we meditate on the mysteries, events lived out under the shadow of the Cross.

Certain mysteries, such as the Crucifixion and Resurrection, clearly lend themselves to memento mori. Others, even in the midst of joy, contain a prophetic or poignant note of sorrow.

I had never been overly fond of memento mori, sound as the spiritual practice may be.

While I might have very occasionally included the practice in my devotions, my life did not bear that out. To be honest, I avoided the thought of death—and anything that brought with it those somber thoughts—like the proverbial plague.

I told myself there were some good reasons for this.

As someone naturally prone to anxiety, I was wary. After all, my imagination—which runs to extremes—constantly and vividly presents to me the various accidents or diseases that might lie in wait for me or for my loved ones. I’m well aware—too aware, perhaps—that this life is fleeting.

A little backstory is in order. I was the tail end of a large family, and death was a regular visitor in my childhood. As grandparents and aging relatives passed away, I knew all too well how to pass the time at a wake—playing hide and seek among the forest of chatting adults; exploring the dim corners of funeral homes; sitting, bored, on an overstuffed mortuary couch.

Then, tragically, my parents passed away when I was quite young.

By the time I was 20, I had attended more funerals than most people attend in a lifetime. Not surprisingly, as I grew up, I consciously associated human love with the pain of letting go. It took some courage to open my heart to marriage and children.

How thankful I am that I did. Nonetheless, on a spiritual level, I generally had mercy on my anxious tendencies, banishing thoughts of death before they could get a foothold.

Now, for the first time, I began to see the beauty of this ancient practice. I began to see that memento mori was not just a pious thought or preparation for how one would live one’s last hour; instead, it was an attitude of acceptance and peaceful preparation.

I won’t enumerate all the ways in which reflecting on death changed my life. Suffice it to say that it was quietly, surprisingly, transformative.

Once I opened myself to thinking about my own death, I found myself thinking about my parenting in the same light. An attitude of lived memento mori means not being overly attached to the passing seasons of life, looking—not anxiously but with prayerful preparation—toward one’s children’s ends as well. What do I want most for them? What am I preparing them for—a saintly death or merely a long and comfortable life? And if I’m called to give them back, God forbid, have I prepared them?

I thought of the births of these beloved children—the trials unique to each pregnancy, the joyful anticipation of each child’s birth, mingled with a distinct sadness that the special bond of pregnancy would be severed.

In the midst of that season of giving birth, my father-in-law passed away. The week of mortal struggle preceding his death remains a blur. But the afternoon of his death—arranged so he could die at home, away from the sterile hospital atmosphere—is crystal clear in my memory. As I sat in the dim room, the clock ticking loudly, the parallels between this death and my experience of childbirth struck me forcefully. The stage was set; all that was left now was the quiet waiting, monitoring, expectation. The hand-holding. The knowledge that only one of us could go through that door.

Finally, I thought of my own parents’ deaths. As a child, I was perhaps peaceful, perhaps merely stunned, by the almost unbelievable occurrence: my father dying of cancer the winter I turned eleven, my mother beginning her own struggle with the disease six months later. As an adult, I was, for a while, unreasonably resentful, as if they had some say in the matter.

But perhaps the greatest gift my parents gave me was their beautiful example in accepting death peacefully, bravely. So bravely that, yes, I was peaceful, like the child whose parent goes before them matter-of-factly into a dark room.

That peace was no accident: it stemmed from their own lived memento mori. A simple remark by my mother—that my father’s face, in death, reminded her of the face of Christ crucified—was revealing:  she viewed everything in her life, including her husband’s death—and, ultimately, her own death—through the lens of her deep faith.

Somber thoughts. But strangely, freeing.

How interesting that this little turning of one’s mind to the point of separation between this life and the next should ultimately obtain the grace to serenely contemplate time’s passing.

Why should thinking about death banish melancholy?

The answer lies in what is on the other side of the door, in the birth that follows the exhaustion of labor, in the resurrection that is our Christian hope.

Without the Cross and Resurrection, memento mori belongs to the stoics, to the realm of the fashionably dark, the trendy, to the stylized skulls that seem to be everywhere as the days grow short.

My family tells the story of how my father, seemingly unconscious for days prior to his death, suddenly lit up—a huge smile transforming his face—when a hospital chaplain called out to him jubilantly “Joe! You’ve almost made it!”

He knew.

It’s Michaelmas as I end my reflections. Autumn is here, the waning Church year echoing the reminiscent season.

A few weeks ago, my 17-year-old son fulfilled a longtime, somewhat quixotic dream. With his younger brother, he dragged our old paddleboard down the beach, climbed aboard, and spent a blissful early evening rowing around the harbor in our coastal town, with a green umbrella as a sail.

It was a perfect end to summer—one to be filed away among happy childhood memories.

The next morning, my young seafarer discovered he had outgrown last year’s school pants, measured six feet on the kitchen wall, and started his junior year of high school.

Memento mori.

A carefree summer, like a happy childhood, is an interlude, a look at future joys. Summer’s end reminds us that this life is not our lasting home. And the best is yet to come.

(Editor’s note: This essay was published originally on October 11, 2022, by Crisis Magazine. It is reposted here in slightly different form with kind permission of the author.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Monica Seeley 14 Articles
Monica Seeley writes from Ventura, California.


  1. “Repent Now! Avoid the rush on Doomsday!”, read the graffiti on the back side of a stall door, in a public restroom, which I read when I was ten years old. Out of all my memories of contemplating my death, of my 64 year life, this snapshot memory of when I was a young child, has always stood out. The thought of trying to get to confession, behind a couple million other people trying to get to confession, while the nukes are on their way in, left a lifelong deep impression in my memories. Sometimes you get inspiration in places where you least expect it.

    • Divine Mercy in My Soul, 1448
      Tell souls where they are to look for solace; that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy (the Sacrament of Reconciliation). There the greatest miracles take place (and) incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to him one’s misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint, there would be no (hope of) restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God’s mercy! You will call out in vain, but it will be too late.

      Divine Mercy in My Soul, 1146
      Write: before I come as a just Judge, I first open wide the door of My mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice.

      Divine Mercy in My Soul, 635 The Blessed Virgin Mary:
      you have to speak to the world about His great mercy and prepare the world for the Second Coming of Him who will come, not as a merciful Savior, but as a just Judge. Oh, how terrible is that day! Determined is the day of justice, the day of divine wrath. The angels tremble before it. Speak to souls about this great mercy while it is still the time for [granting] mercy. If you keep silent now, you will be answering for a great number of souls on that terrible day.

      Divine Mercy in My Soul, 965
      Jesus looked at me and said, Souls perish in spite of My bitter Passion. I am giving them the last hope of salvation; that is, the Feast of My Mercy. If they will not adore My mercy, they will perish for all eternity. Secretary of My mercy, write, tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice, is near.

    • We dispose of poisonous waste and dangerous toxins in bathroom stalls. Just so, the confessional is the appropriate place to dump junk we needlessly carry around.

      We mark both First Friday and Saturday this “Labor Day” weekend. The Sacred Heart of Healing awaits our visit in the next day or two. May many of us receive His greatly liberating blessings.

      • Hello Meiron,
        There are a great number of unrepentant “poisonous waste and dangerous toxins” out there presently persecuting Christ’s Faithful on earth. What do you think of Jesus’, Second Coming, plan to ‘Deliver us from the Evil One’, by flushing the unrepentant “poisonous waste and dangerous toxins” off the planet earth? The Meek, Humble and Pure of Heart, inheriting free-willed earth, Delivered from the Evil One, Living in the ‘Divine Will’ in Peace on Earth under Messianic Reign, would be very delightful right now. Wouldn’t you think?

        Matthew 5:5 The Beatitudes
        Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

        Psalms 37:9
        Those who do evil will be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD will inherit the earth. Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there. But the poor will inherit the earth,…
        …The wicked perish, enemies of the LORD; They shall be consumed like fattened lambs; like smoke they disappear. The wicked one borrows but does not repay; the righteous one is generous and gives. For those blessed by the Lord will inherit the earth, but those accursed will be cut off….
        …When the unjust are destroyed, and the offspring of the wicked cut off, The righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever….
        …Wait eagerly for the LORD, and keep his way; He will raise you up to inherit the earth; you will see when the wicked are cut off….
        …Sinners will be destroyed together; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD, their refuge in a time of distress. The LORD helps and rescues them, rescues and saves them from the wicked, because they take refuge in him.

        Mark 13:24 The Coming of the Son of Man.
        But in those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather [his] elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

        Isaiah 13:9
        Lo, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and burning anger; To lay waste the land and destroy the sinners within it! The stars and constellations of the heavens end forth no light; The sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine. Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their guilt. I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, the insolence of tyrants I will humble. I will make mortals more rare than pure gold, men, than gold of Ophir. For this I will make the heavens tremble and the earth shall be shaken from its place, At the wrath of the LORD of hosts on the day of his burning anger.

        Divine Mercy in My Soul, 635, The Blessed Virgin Mary :
        … you have to speak to the world about His great mercy and prepare the world for the Second Coming of Him who will come, not as a merciful Savior, but as a just Judge. Oh, how terrible is that day! Determined is the day of justice, the day of divine wrath. The angels tremble before it. Speak to souls about this great mercy while it is still the time for [granting] mercy. If you keep silent now, you will be answering for a great number of souls on that terrible day.

        John 17:15
        I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.

        Acts of the Apostles 26:17
        I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me.

        Matthew 6:9 The Lord’s Prayer
        …your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven …//… Subject us not to trial but deliver us from the evil one.’

  2. St. Aloysius Gonzaga to his mother on his own approaching death:

    “Beware, dearest mother, of wronging the infinite goodness, by weeping for one as dead, who is living before God to help you with his prayers far more than he could do when here below. This separation will not be for long, for we shall meet again, and enjoy each other’s society in the next life, never to be wearied of it, but to be united together with our Redeemer, praising him with all strength, and singing mercies forever.”

  3. Monica you’re blessed to have a family, the happiness of watching your son grow. We priests miss that, although we can count as family friends among laity. I never enjoyed funerals. Partly due to the emphasis on resurrection, priests vested in white, eulogies about how wonderful this person was. I did my best to avoid that when offering a funeral Mass. As you allude it’s unrealistic. Our salvation requires more.
    You mention Michaelmas. Michael’s triumph over evil and cowardice. Cowardice has different forms. Most common is the unwillingness to accept our calling, all of us including laity, to lay our life down for our brother. What that means essentially is to accept hardship and pain as a means of sacrifice for him or her. Plainly speaking an awareness of that quiet form of heroism that distinguishes our tendency toward cowardly avoidance of discomfort, seeking more pleasurable experiences. Lots of traveling, good dinners, golf [a favorite priests’ avoidance of his commitments], tennis.
    The innocent happy life seems available to many, if not, finding it in excess. Augustine realized that in seeking truth, what Man is, what is most excellent to aspire to. What we consider normal pursuits as Christians, he realized as the deception of faux happiness in things that are less than God. A God who revealed his love on the cross, and significantly, our vocation as Christians to follow that ‘gloomy’ for some, desired for others rougher pathway to spiritual happiness. At this time of darkness your assessment of melancholy, the cross and death, the spiritual joy of knowing we are instruments of salvation is a perfect response for the many of us.

  4. Thank you for sharing the wonders of life/death, and motherhood. Imagine Mary and her sorrows, celebrated in mid-Sept.!

    This sentence plucked my maternal heart strings: “…the joyful anticipation of each child’s birth, mingled with a distinct sadness that the special bond of pregnancy would be severed.” Having suffered, more than once, at miscarriage and after live birth, near clinical post partum depression, I reflected why. At miscarriage, of course, the sadness was at loss of death, not newness of life. Was I wanting to shirk from the work and sleepless nights a new baby brings? Was I mourning the loss of the union of the mother-child as ‘one’ (what was that saying to or about denying my spouse the same closeness?)? What, exactly, did it all mean? You’ve done an admirable job of sharing your insights. Thank you.

    What season of the year was it when your parents died? Epidemiology studies show that the majority of people in the US die (natural, non-accidental deaths) in the fall or spring, transitional times to Thanksgiving and Christmas and the family holidays of summer. Often they die after reaching some personally significant milestone–my own mother died soon after reaching her 90th birthday, and many of my friends to whom I minister in nursing homes, pass away after some personally significant event toward which they were motivated to ‘live.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.