Part I: Memento Mori (Remember You Must Die)
This last September, my family and I had the opportunity to attend a quaint and curious carnival: the aptly-named “Hearsefest.” As its name implies, Hearsefest is a car show for hearses. Over 100 hearse collectors from all over the country drove to the tiny town of Fowlerville, Michigan to show off their eccentric transports. In addition to showcasing their decked-out hearses, many participants also proudly displayed their collections of funeral home memorabilia, mortuary cots, body bags (new), embalming machines (used), fake skeletons, and real caskets. (At least, I think the skeletons were fake. But I admit I didn’t double check.)
Most might call this event macabre. Some may be surprised to find out such a niche culture of death exists. Yet such a ghastly undertaking is nothing new: its basic elements harken back to an ancient tradition called the Memento Mori, Latin for “Remember to die,” or, put another way, “Remember you must die.” A memento mori is an artistic representation of death displayed in a prominent place; common memento mori images include skulls, bones, hourglasses, and withering flowers. Before this present well-regulated and litigious generation, you might even find someone keeping a real human skull on their desk! The purpose of such grim mementos was to serve as a reminder that death is a certainty. You are no exception. Deny it, accept it, hide from it, laugh in its face — none of this matters. Death is inevitable. And our time of life before death is a limited commodity: brief, quickly flying, and, once it’s passed, irretrievable.
Lest we downplay the memento mori as a mere morbid derangement of more primitive generations, we do well to consider that God’s holy Word of Scripture is filled with such reminders for us. In a psalm, Moses prays that God would “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). The Teacher of Ecclesiastes also says, “Better to go to a funeral than to a feast, since death is the final destination for all mankind. The living must take this to heart!….The hearts of the wise think about the funeral, but the hearts of fools think about the feast” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 4). God Himself tells us that wisdom is found in memento mori: number your days, remember you must die. Therefore, enlighten your hearts with the wisdom of God’s eternal Word for everlasting life.
Not that meditating on death itself confers God’s wisdom. Rather, meditating on death points mortal hearts back to the eternal Word of God for life everlasting. In reference to earthly mortality, that Word tells us “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10), and again, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like a wildflower in the countryside. Grass withers, flowers fade, when the breath of the Lord blows on them” (Isaiah 40:6-7), and again, “What is man that you remember him?” (Psalm 8:4), and again, “Remember that my life is just a breath” (Job 7:7), and again, “Truly each man at his best exists as but a breath” (Psalm 39:5), and again, “What is your life? Indeed, it is a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears” (James 4:14). God repeats Himself often. This must be important.
And it’s especially important to remember when we find ourselves in a culture that assumes the best way to think about death is never to think about it at all. Or, as is the case with our niche cultures of death, to err in the opposite direction and embrace death through fascination, fetishization, and obsession. We may think that being fascinated with death and surrounding oneself with its paraphernalia is the same as understanding and accepting death. Yet one can still misunderstand death by embracing it through misguided methods, much as if someone seeking to understand rattlesnakes were to do so by cuddling with them.
Both the denial and embrace of death misunderstand the essence of what death is, why it is, and how to respond to it properly according to its true nature. Luther speaks of this in his 1519 Sermon on Preparing to Die: “We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance….The power and might of death are rooted in the fearfulness of our nature and in our untimely and undue viewing and contemplating of it.” The true memento mori is death viewed properly, the delicate middle ground that numbers its days aright while also remembering that in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, death is not the final destination, and the hearse does not carry us to our final resting place. Rather, the hearse carries us to the very site where Christ’s resurrection of our flesh in His own glory will occur. As it’s written, “By the power that enables him to subject all things to himself, he will transform our humble bodies to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).
Martin Moller, a Lutheran pastor in the late 16th century, provides an appropriate illustration for how Christians should be aware of and face death: when one bird has been hit with a stone or shot down by the hunter, the bird next to it hurriedly flies away—so also our souls should hurriedly fly to repentance and God’s Word at every reminder of death, for we know not when death’s shot will strike us. The Christian should not flee from death in fear or denial, but in remembering death hurriedly fly to the only remedy for death: God’s powerful Word that raises the dead and promises resurrection and heaven through Christ Jesus.
In remembering we must die, we hurriedly fly to God’s Word for repentance and absolution. We fly to God’s Word joined to water in Holy Baptism, in which we died with Christ, were buried with Him, and now will be raised glorious and victorious even as He was resurrected from death in glory (Romans 6:4-5). We fly again and again to God’s Word joined to bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ’s body and blood in His death on the cross are placed directly on our lips, and so we are nourished with all the benefits of Christ’s death: namely, forgiveness for all our sins, everlasting life in heavenly glory, and eternal salvation in the gracious presence of God.
A true understanding of death cannot be provided from someone still bound to die; it can only be revealed from the Word of the One who knows all, and who has Himself suffered death before us and come out alive on the other side to be the firstfruits of our resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). A true acceptance of death, a true memento mori, can only be found in one source, in the One who suffered death for our sake and conquered it. And you, dear Christian, have His Word: “He has swallowed up death forever!” (Isaiah 25:8).
 LW 42:101-102.
 Martin Moller, Preparing for Death, trans. Arthur E. Schulz.