Memento Morte: Remember Death

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2005

Judging by much of the art and literature, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe was fairly morbid. Amid all the optimism of the Golden Age, an entire genre grew up called memento morte, which involved meditation on suffering and death. This is not surprising given the fact that about half of Europe’s population in some parts had succumbed to the Plague: Few of one’s children would live to adulthood, and as late as the 1660s, London was devastated not only by a resurgent plague but a fire that reduced much of the city to ashes. It is no wonder that Albrecht Durer, a famous woodcutter preoccupied with memento morte, was also a close friend of Luther’s and that so many poets and artists could so richly evoke the tragic sensibility of Calvin with which they identified: “This life is a constant death.”

In Jewish, Catholic, and older Protestant service books there are prayers for wartime, natural disasters, epidemics, a sick child, those in bereavement, travelers, and prisoners. In Puritan families, the body would normally be placed in an open casket in a central living space until the funeral itself. Children would ask about its meaning. Ministers visiting those on their deathbed would ask them directly, Are you prepared to die?, while some wrote eloquently and wisely on the art of dying well. But this is not likely to become part of the reality TV fare of evening entertainment.

The Book of Common Prayer has a service for the burial of the dead—not the burial of the deceased or the resting, the departed, or those who have, in the now widely adopted parlance of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, “passed on,” but the dead. It begins with the glorious promise of future resurrection. But then the psalmist is cited:

Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days; that I may be certified how long I have to live. Behold, thou has made my days as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity. For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee. When thou with rebukes doest chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to waste away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment: every man therefore is but vanity. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with thine ears consider my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength once more before I go hence and be no more seen. (Psalm 39)

Passages of hope are then recited, from the Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles, affirming the resurrection of the body and the free justification of all who trust in Christ. Then comes the sober prayer:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us through this vale of misery, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our lives: That, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of thy church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask only through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This piety grew out of the rich soil of biblical realism, moving back and forth between the tragedy of sin and death on the one hand and the triumph of God’s grace in Christ on the other. Historians have judged that periods of great prosperity usually have little interest in the theology of the Reformation, with its grim view of sin and utter dependence on God’s grace, while periods of crisis often allow more honest questioning. Perhaps to the extent that our malls and entertainment can no longer keep at bay the realities of rapidly spreading disease, genocide, and terrorism, that preaching, worship, and outreach will be most relevant that once again deals most directly with the truth of sin and death.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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