As a teenager on a family holiday in Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt. This series of small cellars is decorated with the bones of several thousand Capuchin friars. Femurs line the walls whilst finger bones adorn the light fittings. One room alone is dedicated to pelvises. My self-righteous 16-year old self was horrified. Not so much by the skeletal furnishings, but by the attendants’ insistence that this place was neither a desecration of human remains nor hilariously camp. The laughing skull with shoulder blade ‘bowtie’ was, they insisted, a solemn and serious reminder of our fleeting existence, a momento mori, recalling that ‘all flesh is grass’ [Isaiah 40:6]. Having seen a dead pope in a box only the day before, I scoffed like only a 16-year old knows how.
Now that I’m older, hopefully wiser, less inclined to scoff and have finally acquired some dress sense, I think those Capuchins (or at least the people who nailed their remains to the wall as ornaments) were on to something.
‘Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them.’
It strikes me that, out of the 42 ‘Advices and Queries’ held dear by British Quakers, this advice about death (no.30) doesn’t appear soon enough. It’s placed after the words of wisdom dealing with childhood (no.19), marriage (no.23), parenthood (no.24) and old age (no.29), as if the Grim Reaper holds off until you’ve jumped these hurdles. Since every one of us is going to die, and it could be tomorrow, I’d like to see this advice much nearer the beginning. Recently, many people have been touched by the life and death of Stephen Sutton. Having accepted his terminal cancer prognosis, Stephen was energized to complete his ‘bucket list’. Accepting the fact of his death (which came before marriage, parenthood and old age), he was freed to live more fully.
What’s stopping us all from living our lives as zestfully as Stephen? Probably quite a lot of things, but one of them is undeniably a fear, or even ignorance, of death. Death and dying seem to be the last taboo. By shutting the dying away, preventing children from attending funerals and euphemising death, it becomes unknown and feared. Still in my early thirties, I have never seen a dead body (the embalmed pope doesn’t count), or attended a funeral where one was present. Fear of death causes us to stockpile food and protect our personal wealth with security fences and guard dogs. It is the preeminent tool of tyrants.As far as I can see, the central truth about the resurrection of Jesus is that the power of death, the power of the powerful, is broken. The Empire did its worst to Jesus and it didn’t stop him. For Jesus’ followers, death should no longer control our decisions. Not in the twisted way that creates suicides bombers, or by feeling ‘saved’ from the violence of hellfire and damnation. Followers of Jesus are, ideally, not coerced by threat of legal action, arrest or brute force, but motivated by a strong and humble love for all of God’s creation.
Finding new momento mori
Do we need new momento mori to prevent us from going soft with illusions of immortality and fear of the unkown? Even great empires don’t last forever, as the seagulls nesting in the remains of the Roman Forum testify. As we won’t be sticking the bones of George Fox to the Meeting House walls any time soon, what might our momento mori look like?Two years ago, my husband completed a course entitled ‘Peer Education in End of Life Care’. As a result of him roping me into his homework assignments, we’ve now made our wills and discussed our funerals. Last week was the Dying Matters awareness week, with the theme ‘You Only Die Once’. Talking about death, how we would want to die, planning for a ‘good end’ and contemplating our mortality are perhaps all momento mori in action.
Despite the huff in which I left the Capuchin Crypt, what those bones declare is true. One day I’ll be dead (and don’t forget I want ‘Shall We Gather By the River’ at the funeral and LOTS of crying! Children and dogs welcome). If I’m lucky I might even get turned into a lampshade.