©2019 Rachel Wong.

Remembering my own death


"Now, at the end of my life..."


I've caught myself saying that a lot recently, typically as part of a joke. It's not original; I stole it from a John Mulaney comedy special. But typically I use it to talk about the passing of time: then versus now, who I was before and who I have become. As an early twenty-something, I don't actually mean that I'm at the end of my life or that I might die tomorrow. It's just a weird quip to go with my already odd sense of humour.


But as an early twenty-something and my peers around me, we typically don't think about death or end of life things. It's not in line with the aesthetic of a twenty-something, anyway. We're supposed to be young and reckless. The world is our oyster, and there is a whole life of opportunity ahead of us. Why think about something ⁠— like death ⁠— when we don't have to worry about it for 50, maybe even 60 or 70 years if we're lucky?


Interestingly enough, as I've started to catch myself quoting John Mulaney on a semi-regular basis, I really started to think about death, mortality, and the whole idea that our time on this earth is temporary.


Weird, right? What turned me into this morbid, brooding being? I thought my time to be a angsty teenager was behind me!


Unbeknownst to me, I've been steeping in this idea of memento mori for the past couple of months, and it's only now that I've really come to get it.


For the uninitiated, memento mori (Latin) can be translated into "remember you must die". I had no idea that this tradition of memento mori extends far beyond the Catholic world: it is actually a movement that made its way into the arts and literature, and is a practice carried by such groups as the ancient Romans and Egyptions, Buddhists, and others. This is a simple fact that was even captured very eloquently by Benjamin Franklin in a letter that he wrote in 1789: "...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."


So why am I thinking about death all the time?


To be clear, I'm not saying that I'm going around tolling a death bell or waiting for lightning to strike me dead. As someone who spent many years fighting the temptation of a premature death by suicide, I've come to approach end of life in a new and ironically life-giving way.


We can all expect to die: we don't know when or how, but it will happen one day. I'm content knowing that there is a plan for my life, and all I can do is do the best I can. God will call me home when it is my time.


This isn't to say that because we know the certainty of death that we should just do whatever we want, live with no rules or responsibility, and just coast. Rather, to live is a gift. It is a responsibility, and it is our duty to steward the time that we've been given to us in the appropriate way (see Matthew 25:14–30). The added dimension of death and the ephemeral nature of our life adds a sense of urgency to that: we can't afford to waste any time. Our impending death is a reminder of our humanity and mortality. We are not, and never will be, above God. Only He chooses when we go back to Him. This in itself is a humbling fact: a reminder to center everything that we do around Him and ensure that whatever we do in our work and life should point back to the creator. Further, every year on Ash Wednesday, the ashes that are placed on our forehead are a very tangible reminder of this. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" is what the priest says as he marks our foreheads with ashes (see also Genesis 3:19).

End of life matters, especially for young people, are difficult things to think or talk about. It may not be entirely necessarily to go scrambling to write up your will or get your estate in a row, but it is worthwhile to remember that our life on this earth is temporary. Take heart, though, and don't be overwhelmed by the sadness and fear that may come along with dying. Take comfort in the fact that God will take care of everything. All we need to do is give our yes and live our lives to the fullest.


With that said, what are you doing to bring light to others? Based on the gifts and talents that God has given you, how do you point back to Him?