Memento Mori

Whenever I post anything related to death, I know it won’t get a lot of “likes.” Most of us want to avoid the topic. It’s too painful. Frightening. Even when we claim to hold a strong faith, we’d still rather ignore the truth that we are all destined to die. I suppose that’s one reason that the strongest of Christians would rather skip Good Friday and move right to the Easter lilies.

I don’t know why I was introduced to life’s termination so early. A second-grade friend of mine died, and I remember Mom and Dad walking to her house to offer their condolences. And I vividly recall the day my first dog, Lassie, was struck by a car on West Church Street. A man never forgets his first pet. And he still sheds an uninvited tear from time to time.

I was raised in a household where “Remember Pearl Harbor” was spoken occasionally, and I read the faded newspaper accounts and sorted through the grim and grainy photos of that hellish day, when body parts filled the waters of Oahu. Two of my brothers were named after World War II generals, and from the beginning I somehow knew I would stare death in the face when I became a man. My prayer was that I would be able to “outstare the darkness” and become a man among men.

In high school and beyond there were many reminders. The “Weekly Reader” began including articles about a place called Vietnam, where our nation was sending military advisors to stop the spread of global communism. It seemed so far away, but when the photos of the bodies started appearing in the evening news, I felt as though I could reach out and touch them. Just the way I was allowed to touch the hand of a great-grandfather as he lay in his casket. Death and I were no strangers to each other.

On December 11, 1960, the snow was falling in Corry, Pennsylvania. It always fell deep in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I was asleep in my upstairs bedroom when I was awakened by sirens and noises of commotion just down the hill, on the railroad tracks that ran through our town. A sense of darkness fell over me, much darker than the night itself. It felt like the end of life, maybe the end of the world for someone. The following day we all learned that two young men had died that night when their car was struck by a passenger train. Corry Area High School would never be the same after Terry and Mike perished, at least not for me.

And then came the death of President Kennedy, the hero who was leading us to a New Frontier…and to the Moon and back. I was sitting in French class during my senior year when the voice of our principal, Mr. Peck, came over the intercom to inform us of the tragedy in Dallas. Death had won again and had reminded us that our dreams can be shattered in the blink of an eye. Or the flash from a rifle.

In many ways, my service in Vietnam was in the natural flow of my voyage with death. I was never afraid of enemy snipers and mortar fire. I was careful, and I tried to instill this caution in the Marines I was leading. But I knew a Savior who had died for me and had risen from the dead, and I believed Him when He promised a place for me on the far side of the river.

More would come, of course. I’ve officiated many funerals, I’ve sat with families as a loved one slipped away. I’ve been on the scene after horrific accidents. I’ve felt the heartbreak when a friend has left a void that can’t be filled by anyone else. And there are times when the Grim Reaper seems to have the last word.

But then I remember that his conclusion is only the next-to-the-last. For the God who created life will one day reclaim all of life, especially those of men and women who were crafted in the divine image. So we can live with the awareness that our final ending will not be final at all. In the meantime, we can live each day to its fullest and drink the cup of joy gladly. We can pray to make each day an investment in eternity, and we can live deeply.

“Those who refuse to face death live shallow.”