There is a leitmotiv that occurs time and again in Western Art at least since the middle ages that is called “memento mori.” The memento mori (Latin for "remember death") is an artistic or literary reminder of human mortality and the evanescent quality of all finite things. Remembering the inevitability of death has the potential to properly situate and order the dispositions and desires of one’s life. We learn from the fragility of life what is genuinely important. In terms of Christian spirituality, the practice of calling to mind one’s mortality can instill in one a greater hope for heaven and deepen one’s awareness of the necessity of Christ’s saving grace. The finite nature of all things presents to the believer the magnitude of what is offered to us in the resurrection of Christ- we are not bound simply to the fate of decay and death, but are given in Christ a destiny beyond the constraints of this passing world. In this respect, the great ritualized memento mori that the Church imparts to the faithful on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” is not so much a lament, but an act of praise and thanksgiving for what Christ has accomplished. We remember what we are and what we have become because of Christ’s victory over the grave- in his triumph we know that death no longer has the final word.
Literary and artistic representations of “memento mori” have waxed and waned in terms of their popularity over the years. The style of memento mori was culturally fashionable during the Victorian period, as the vivid funerary art of this period so eloquently testify. Yet, for the most part, modernity has had an uneasy relationship with memento mori. Modernity has defined itself through its metanarrative of inevitable progress, which has emphasized the power of human ingenuity to overcome the limits imposed by nature. Death is but one more natural phenomena that humanity has yet to conquer through its technological know how, and our victory is in sight. Why reflect on death's inevitability if the progress of science assures us that anything is possible, even immortality? Why prepare oneself for a world which is yet to come when we could seemingly live in this world forever? Also, the persistence of death and decay is a reminder that the metanarrative of modernity’s progress is more of a contemporary mythology than something genuinely empirical.
With all of this in mind, one of the most popular offerings on the History Channel is a series called “Life After People”, which I would contend represents contemporary culture’s reimagining of the “memento mori.” The premise of the show is that for some unidentified reason, humanity has simply disappeared from the planet. Each episode examines the response of the natural world to the sudden absence of human beings. The viewer witnesses the decay of our greatest architectural and technological accomplishments as time and nature reduce humanity’s legacy to ruins. Skyscrapers totter and fall. Dams burst and whole cities are submerged. Animals run wild in the streets. Vegetation entangles statues. Over time, even a metropolis like New York City disappears until nothing remains but verdant meadows and forests, the hustle and bustle of humanity silenced by the calls of the wild. All of this is placed before us through the wonders of computer animation. One of the factors that renders the show so watchable is that the buildings and monuments that are reduced to rubble are all so recognizable, from the Empire State Building to even St. Peter’s Basilica. Who hasn’t gazed at the skylines of our cities or surveyed the great monuments of civilization and wondered “will this all last forever?” The answer we all bear deep within is “no,” and accompanying that admission is a truth that hits closer to home- nothing lasts, especially not me.
I liken the experience of watching the show as being emotionally akin to the manner in which children construct intricate structures out of their blocks, only to relish the act of destroying their accomplishments. However, in the aftermath of such a display of visual destruction, the viewer is left with the sobering truth engendered by all memento mori- is death all that there is? And if death does have the last word, what does anything mean? Should we treasure our existence or fall into despair?
In respect to these kinds of questions, “Life after People” has no real answers. The series' lack of insight into the meaning of a world in the grip of finitude demonstrates its secular ethos. The only assurance that the show can give its viewers is that in our absence nature will go on without us, and the best that we can hope for in terms of a lasting memorial to our existence are not our buildings and monuments, but the fact that the biological material of our bodies will be re-assimilated into the environment. The show is not just about life after people, but life after God, or more specifically, life after a specifically Christian ethos has been evacuated from our understanding of ourselves and the world. Whereas the Christian memento mori offers hope of existence beyond the limiting constraints of nature, the secular memento mori of “Life after People” can do nothing be allow death to have the final word.
At its best, “Life After People” echoes the Scriptures which insist that the believer understand that we have in this world no lasting city. Our hope resides in a heavenly Jerusalem that is not built by human hands or subject to the decay and death of this world. The Christian is not driven to despair by the inevitable passage of time or the forces of nature, for these things are creatures of God, and their purpose after Christ's victory over death is not to lead us simply to destruction, but to eternal participation in the life of God.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.