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“Memento Mori” Calls Us to Live in Death

November 2, 2021


To remember one’s death is, in short, a way of life.
—Muriel Spark (Memento Mori)

It is unusual in our culture to live in the knowledge and expectation of our deaths. I was struck by this in my own life when I attended my first All Souls’ Day Requiem Mass five years ago. I was fascinated by the sight of the catafalquethe rectangular wooden box covered by a black pallthat was displayed in the aisle with candles during the Mass. It calls to mind the future that awaits us all. I had never contemplated death so vividly before that moment, but the realization that my own body would be in a wooden box one day while the faithful in the pews prayed for my soul was inescapable.

The practice of considering the reality of death is deep in our Catholic tradition. By keeping our mortality at the forefront of our mind we develop clarity and attentiveness to eternal things. We call it memento mori (remember you must die) which is also the title of a mystery by twentieth-century Catholic writer Muriel Spark. Memento Mori is quirky and compelling, and it’s the only novel I’ve read that has an almost entirely septuagenarian and octogenarian cast of characters! It’s hardly your typical murder mystery. In fact, it’s not really about murder at all.

While the reality of death is front and center from the first page (funerals, homes for seniors, the decaying of age), the “crime” that’s being investigated in this mystery novel isn’t a homicide; it’s simply a voice on the other end of the telephone saying, “Remember that you will die.” Even if they leave their homes to stay elsewhere, these eerie phone calls follow the novel’s aged characters. But what’s more fascinating than the identity of the caller is the recipients’ responses. Some characters are unsettled and scared by these mysterious calls, informing law enforcement and coping with feelings of powerlessness by seeking control. Others find them so terrifying that they block out the calls from their memory completely. And others are calmly resigned to the message on the other end of the line. 

What seems to have bearing on these responses is the characters’ acceptance of their mortality. Godfrey Colston, the elderly husband of a successful writer now struggling with dementia, is alarmed by the calls and seems terrified to grow old. He visits a woman almost sixty years his junior in order to feel young and important and views men who are older and less active with smug derision. Alec Warner, another old man in their social circle, copes with his own aging process by closely studying the aging of others. He explores this obsession, as if by comprehending the reality of aging he might somehow avoid the inevitable himself. Other characters have ceased to resist the idea of mortality. The retired inspector Henry Mortimer, for instance, lives with a potentially fatal heart condition. He is in the practice of memento mori already, and the suggestion to remember his death holds no terror for him. 

As the plot thickens, we learn how the lives of the characters are intertwined. Their pasts of adultery, blackmail, jealousy, unrequited love, and coercion are burdens that have been carried decade after decade. The forced memento mori that the phone calls elicit moves some characters to try to shed light on the past so that amends can be made. For others, the opportunity to begin again is wasted, and they only grow paranoid and self-obsessed.

I was reminded of the importance of remembering our mortality when watching the new TV series Nine Perfect Strangers based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name. The story follows nine people who are in crisis and are drawn to a “wellness spa” that turns out to be a much more intense experience than they bargained for. One of the exercises they must participate in is climbing into a grave as the “spa” staff throw clumps of earth on them. This uncomfortable exercise leads them to meditate on death, and they climb out of the grave with a commitment to live in light of their mortality. It is a turning point that transforms their lives.

Memento Mori keeps bringing death to the forefront despite our discomfort with it. We often avoid reflecting on our inevitable deaths like the novel’s Dame Lettie Colston, Godfrey’s sister. When asked by her sister-in-law about the newspapers’ daily obituaries, she replies, “Oh, don’t be gruesome,” as if contemplating death is uncouth and disgusting. And yet, it’s Dame Lettie who meets the most gruesome end in the novel. In a desperate attempt to avoid the mysterious calls, she severs her phone line, and her maid leaves her service due to her paranoia. This leaves her alone, isolated, and vulnerable, and she is killed in a burglary. In the end, her fear of mortality was the most dangerous thing of all. There is no avoiding death. It will come for us all no matter whether we ignore or embrace the suggestion to contemplate it.

In Memento Mori, rather than avoiding any mention of death, some of the characters are willing to simply meditate on the words of the mysterious caller. What if we were to do the same and remember that we must die? How would we live in light of our mortality and the hope of the Resurrection? The novel’s wise Henry Mortimer muses to his wife, “If I had my life over again, I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.” Could we learn from his wisdom and begin forming this habit so that we, too, might live well?

Spark’s dialogue in Memento Mori is both hilarious and poignant, and her unusual plot is creative and engaging. It is a perfect read to help us face the reality of our own death this All Souls’ Day and in the month of November as we remember the souls in purgatory. Perhaps we must climb into the grave occasionally to be able to step boldly into abundant life.