Remembrance of Death

[November 13, 2015]

The remembrance of death is a spiritual discipline found in both Eastern and Western Christian spirituality. The idea is that it is a good idea to bear in mind that you are going to die. It’s a humbling thought. It’s a thought that instantly realigns your priorities. It’s a thought that makes you take more seriously the need to resist sin.

This icon is “The Astonishment of St Sisoes,” who saw the remains of Alexander the Great, after rioting in Alexandria opened his tomb.

The text reads, “Sisoes, the great among ascetics, stood before the tomb of Alexander, Emperor of Greeks, who at one time had shone with glory. Astonished, he weeps for the inexorable passing of time and the transience of glory. He cries out with tears, ‘Beholding you, O Tomb, I shed tears from my heart, and weep for the common debt of all mankind! How shall I bear this? O Death, who can escape you?’”

Here’s something I use, to keep the certainty of death in mind.

Feel the bones in your wrist. Those are your bones, part of your skeleton. If an archaeologist found your remains a thousand years from now, that’s what they would find. Not some other theoretical bones, but your own bones, the ones inside your wrist right now.

In fact your whole body has a skeleton inside. You are made out of a skeleton with meat stuck on the outside, all over. After you die the meat gets eaten by tiny creatures until it’s all gone and turned into compost. The skeleton is what’s left.

So you carry a skeleton around with you, everywhere you go. The thoughts you are thinking are generated inside a skull, like the one in a skull-and-crossbones image, except that it is your own skull, that you are using as a container at the present time. Think of your skeleton and its parts, and keep in mind the inevitability of death.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


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