Saturday, January 06, 2007

Independent Collegian Column: Memento Mori

Remember your death

Patrick Beeman

Posted: 11/16/06

The old Penny Catechism observed that, "The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell." Those are some weighty things. But how often do we think about them? Placed in such a grave category as "The four last things to be ever remembered," you'd think they would occupy our reflection a bit more often - especially at a university where we ought to explore the big questions and we actually have the time and leisure to do so (that goes, at least, for you undergrads). Yet, they remain as unmentionables inside our benighted ivory tower of science, empiricism and materialism. That is, they remain things that we shouldn't discuss.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to be macabre, but thinking about these things, especially the first, could do us some good.

It seems to me that the idea of death has taken on a sort of Victorian character about which we "enlightened" moderns have become more than a bit prudish. If you mention death, you are accused of being morbid. Yet, death is one of the few tangibles in life. Sooner or later, we will all face it in one manner or another. As college students or even med students our youth may cause us to live life as if we were immortal. But the sad reality is we are not. Sure, death is natural in one sense, but I think the most agreeable fact about death is that it strikes us as completely and utterly unnatural - an affront to our human dignity (like problem-based learning). Of course, this is part of the reason many people choose to become physicians: to alleviate the burden of and concomitant suffering often associated with death and dying.

This week, I intended to write about the meaning of human life according to Aristotle, but things did not go as planned. On Sunday morning, I got the frightful phone call we tend to dread more and more as we get older. It was my mom. She said, "Your grandpa passed away." Everything stopped. I cried.

You have to understand, I am a med student with a significant amount of responsibilities and pressures, most of which prevent me even from having adequate time and space to mourn. Moreover, I am strong. Part of me went into medicine because I think I can "handle" dying in all its affronting reality. But I can't; I admit it. When "Sister Death," in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, greets you, she doesn't come in a very friendly manner. She comes to tell you that the world as you know it has ended, the person whom you love is gone and that your time, too, is winding down. That's quite a jolting memento mori (Latin for "Remember your death").

In her worthy novel of the same name, Muriel Spark envisages a world in which Death himself phones a number of elderly people and gives them the simple message: memento mori. The interesting part of the novel concerns how each of the characters respond to this simple reminder. Some become extremely neurotic and end their days in horrifying torment. Yet, there are those characters that take this as a friendly reminder and learn to live each moment as a preparation for passing on. We could learn a lot from such a reminder.

A famous Hippocratic phrase has it that Ars longa, vita brevis (The art [of medicine] is long, but life is short). We medical students face this striking reality every day, forced to memorize more facts than there are combinations of letters to make up words. But the dictum applies to all: one has but a short time to fulfill one's calling. Therefore, the sooner a person realizes that life should be lived with a "view to the end," the better that person will make his or her life.

Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." Without a conscious reflection upon the mystery of human death, one cannot claim to have a sufficiently examined life.

Nothing can prepare a person for the sadness of death, but you can be prepared to deal with the reality itself. So, memento mori. And remember, although death is the first of the "last things," someone famous once said, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." But this is something I do not think even medicine will have a hand in accomplishing.
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