The Core and the coffin

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Photo by Annabelle Nicholas

A small plastic skull resides on my desk. Winthrop has become the source of many a joke with my friends. However, his true purpose is to serve as a tangible reminder of my own mortality. 

The tradition of keeping a skull on the desk is an expression of the larger Catholic tradition of “memento mori,” or “remember your death.” The month of November, dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, offers us an opportunity to not only pray for the deceased, but also to examine our own readiness for death.

Although not every desk harbors a skull, the theme of memento mori is tangible in the UD community. Students have T-shirts, stickers and even tattoos that all point to the Catholic remembrance of death. 

As members of Gen Z, we live in what many describe as a morbid generation that tends to view life as meaningless and death as an escape from a hopeless world. The attitude towards death embraced by UD stands as a starkly beautiful contrast to this despairing worldview. 

“Memento mori means … to live with a view to life after your time on earth,” said Sammie Ronge, junior philosophy major. “If the Lord came now, would I be satisfied with how I’ve been living my life?”

Contemplation of death “reminds us … that the next life is going to be wonderful, that heaven is really something to look forward to,” said Sr. Mary Angelica, O.P., affiliate assistant professor of theology. “[The Lord] wants to transform us into everlasting life …The more our love grows for Jesus, the more we look forward to that moment.”

The plethora of skull images and crucifixes across campus are traditional symbols of memento mori. But we also carry a potent reminder of mortality in our backpacks every day: the Great Books of the West.

“Liberal arts education … takes into account the whole human experience … of what the truth is about our nature,” said Sr. Angelica. “One of those deep truths is that we will die someday.”

Plato, Virgil and Montesquieu lived centuries and oceans apart. But the same human heart beat in their chests. The same death took them all.

If there is one consistency in history, it is that even the greatest empires crumble. Athens and Rome are no more. One day, America will lie beneath a shroud.

Every day, the liberal arts student makes contact with the dead, not through a seance, but through the simple act of opening a book. As we laugh with Shakespeare and are moved by Thucydides, we cannot forget that these men are dead. The worlds they knew are no more. We will join them soon.

To the world, this is a cause for fear and grief. But for the Catholic liberal arts student, this should be a cause for deep joy. Odysseus’ ache for home is a painful, but a real facet of the common human experience. As Christians, that ache is only fully alleviated in the eternal arms of the one who makes all things new.

“We’re always going to have that ache in our heart for something greater but that’s only fulfilled … in heaven after we’ve died,” said Ronge.

What is death, if not that moment when Penelope’s heart goes slack before her spouse? What could be more joyful than gazing into the eyes of the Beloved who sees every human failure that we encounter in our study of history and still continues to pursue humanity? 

There can be nothing more wondrous than being led to the eternal banquet where, by God’s mercy, we worship Truth Himself.

To lose sight of this destiny, to forget home, would be the greatest tragedy. This is why I have a skull on my desk.

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