Memento Mori: Life and Death Moment by Moment

Remember the Moment of Death
to Remember the Moment of Life

This talk has been given three times in 2006, 2007, 2008:

1) Unitarian Universalist Service, June 4, 2006
Lakeport Yacht Club
Lakeport Marina, near Gazebo Park
Lakeport, California

2) First Unitarian Church, September 2, 2007
Alton, Illinois

3) Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside
Riverside, California
March 16, 2008

Definition of Memento Mori

memento mo·ri (môr • ē)
n. pl. memento mori

1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death’s-head.
2. A reminder of human failures or errors.

A reminder (as a death’s head) of your mortality.
reminder– An experience that causes you to remember something.

[New Latin mement ō mor ī, be mindful of dying : Latin mement ō, sing. imperative of meminisse, to remember + Latin mor ī, to die.]

( from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003.

Memento Mori.—Latin for “Be mindful of dying.”
A reminder of death or mortality.
An experience that causes you to by mindful of your mortality.
A reminder of human failures or errors.

In common parlance, one might say that “Memento Mori” is a wake-up call—a call to action to live more fully and mindfully that one might die more fully and mindfully. Since most of us these days did not take Latin in high school, as my father did, let’s practice saying this phrase so that we become more comfortable and familiar with it. “Momento Mori.” Say it as if you are in Italy about to order a bowl of your favorite pasta, and afterwards will stroll out to the village courtyard. Say it as if there is no more joyous thing in life to say.

I had heard that Trappist Monks, known for their strict vows of silence, used “Memento Mori” in greeting to inspire their meditation practice. When I inquired on-line of the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky, Brother Luke replied that Trappist Monks nod in silence and smile in greeting. But, I’m willing to bet that they have “Memento Mori” in their hearts.

Remember the moment of death in order to remember the moment of life. Remember to remember to remember. That’s what I want you to remember at the end of today’s service.

I dedicate these words this morning to my sister Julia—who died suddenly and unexpectedly in a car crash and to my mother—who died at age 90, in bed, at the end of a good, full life. And for all the other deaths known and unknown of humans and living beings that have supported and shaped our lives. And, for those of us who remain—who have yet to meet our death.

I want to give a special thank you to Clovice Lewis who, in addition to bringing the voice of his cello to this service and this talk today, gave me some advice that changed the course of my life for the better. He spoke to me at the farmer’s market in the fall of 2004 after my sister’s death. My life was in shambles around me as I tried to make some choices for my next steps. Clovice’s advice to me was to go home and be with my family during this time of crisis. “Everyone deserves to know the truth about their lives,” Clovice told me. I took his advice and out of the truth I found, I wrote my first book, Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.

My father’s poem “Blood on the Highway,” opens Sightlines. His poem shows the parallels between the lives and deaths of his mother and his oldest daughter. He ends by saying:

I know they both were ready
When God called them home.

It is with this thought that I dedicate this morning’s service: that we may be ready at the moment of our death. This then, is my “Memento Mori” for all of us here in this room so that we may take impermanence to heart. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says:

Taking impermanence truly to heart is to be slowly freed from the idea of grasping, from our flawed and destructive view of permanence, from the false passion for security on which we have built everything. Slowly it dawns on us that all the heartache we have been through from grasping at the ungraspable was, in the deepest sense, unnecessary.
At the beginning this too may be painful to accept, because it seems so unfamiliar. But as we reflect, slowly our hearts and minds go through a gradual transformation. Letting go begins to feel more natural, and becomes easier and easier.
It may take a long time for the extent of our foolishness to sink in, but the more we reflect, the more we develop the view of letting go. It is then that a complete shift takes place in our way of looking at everything

The Memento Mori in our lives free us from grasping and bring us to this shift—where we can recognize, and even welcome the workings of impermanence.

Sometimes our Memento Mori come to us in a quiet moment at home, almost casually, as this sudden, accidental death did in “Quail Visitation. A bird flies into glass—under the illusion that it is simply continuing through sky.


Daniel cleaned twin windows facing the mountain.
Cleared away grime two years in the making.
I cooked supper while he looked out.
“What a shame when birds slam into glass.”
Then, suddenly, one did.
A big sound. Then, down.
Tiger prowled the deck to claim his surprise supper.
Then jumped up on the screen to announce the meal.

We scrambled outside.
The oval body, more than stunned.
Dead. Neck broken on glass masquerading as air.
We’d never seen one fly so high.
Never seen one so close.
Never held one in my hands.
Hunters must all the time.
Topknot dangling. Eyes closed. Heart stopped.
So many shades, soft gray and brown scalloped with black.
Still feet and pointed toes.

“Do you want me to bury it?”
No, I’ll lay it at the top of the land.
At the edge of the woods where the mountain lion roam at night.
Sing a prayer for its soul
to soar higher than houses with solid air.
To soar into another life quicker than coveys
scurry through dry grasses in the moonlight.

The cat—pacing, pacing the deck.
Excited by its whiff of wildness.
I led him outside, in the opposite direction.
If he hunts for it, all right.
But the quail deserves a head start.

Sometimes, our Memento Mori come to us through our friends and neighbors as this one does in “Stay a Little Longer.” You see the reminder first through the viewpoint of my friend, then her daughter—my neighbor—then West African customs of mourning, then the poet’s eyes. The moment ripples through multiple places and times.


Yesterday, a friend called.
“He shot himself. He left notes.
I don’t know how my daughter will take it.
Listen, and let me know, okay?”

An hour later, I heard her go into mourning.
One might say “hysterics,”
but what I heard was the cry of grief.
That sound took me back
to a ritualized mourning I witnessed
in northwestern Ghana decades ago.

Guardian relatives
led the widow by a rope tied around her waist
while she keened her good-bye song.
The rope, a lifeline,
connected her to life and sanity.
It kept her on this side for her allotted time.
The rope reminded her to resist
the temptation to slip over
to the other side in search of her husband’s spirit.

As the daughter next door voiced her pain,
I thought of my connection
to the man who died by his own hand.
He is a man I never knew or met.
I only know him
through hearing stories of how this community was built.
I have walked on steps and pathways he made
from the tail ends of concrete used to pour foundations.
I live in a cabin his hands shaped.
I feel his passing with surprising sharpness.
My thoughts travel to his final day of life.
I wonder at the pain that drove his destruction.

Today, I hear shrieks
on the wide lawn and at the end of the dock
as someone’s skin
meets air and water—sounds of children playing.
Laughter drifts
over the water from a party in the works.
The air holds
all these sounds without preference or bias.
Sounds of playing, mourning, and laughing all emerge
from the same throat, heart, and body.

News of other suicides—by hanging—filters in.
I grieve for those who saw the door ajar and left early.
If only all these early-leavers
could have decided to close that cracked door
between the worlds and stay a little longer.

Sometimes our Memento Mori come closer to home as we watch a beloved parent age—as “King’s Sake”—a poem written for my 90-year-old father—reveals.


The Old King is dying, and he knows it.
The Old Ways are dying, and he knows it.
The Old Music is dying, even as he plays it.
He tries to keep it all alive.
But no one is fooling anyone—least of all him.

So much to do. So little time.
There’s only one of him to go around.
Mom, the place, the new novel—
the old heritage for the archives.

You’ll live at least to 99—another 10 years, yet.
“I might have said that three years ago,
but the last two have been mighty hard ones.”
His body is falling apart, slowly.
Every time he gets a new ailment,
the doctor says, “Well, Mr. Thompson,
you will die with it, not of it.”

The only thing he’ll die of is old age.
Or, maybe old age and a broken
Heart that keeps on breaking.

The Old King is dying.
Long live the King!

The consolation prize in my father’s story is the gift of seeing the life-cycle continue in the generations coming up. Following his wife’s death on May 1st, his latest great-grandson was born. Of course, photos flew all over the Internet, just as they did when we viewed an earlier image of my father with another great-grandchild.


Pixels of sly smiling pleasure.
Newest great grandchild lifted to a nearly deaf ear.
Yes, there’s the heart beat
that promises his line will continue
when his own heart rolls over and moves on.

In some cultures, death is interwoven into daily life. When I lived in Ghana, I rode on Mammy Wagons emblazoned with slogans reminding me of death and providence: “Who knows but God?” In our death-denying, youth-glorifying culture there are so many places to hide, as this stanza from “Circling Around Holes” makes clear.


Wind, rain and time
carve caves out of rocky hillsides
where bears go to sleep it off.
There are so many hidey-holes.
Cozy places we wait it out.
Safe places that become dangerous
if we stay too long and lose our sense and sanity.

My sister Julia’s sudden death was a profound Memento Mori for our entire family.“ Her death drug us out of every cozy and safe hidey-hole and every cave we’d ever hibernated in. “Just Like You and Me” is my compressed telling of Julia’s very full life and very dramatic end of that life…and what happened immediately after her death. This last section is the first of three poems I’ll read—riffing on rainbows.


It had been hot. Then started to rain.
A scout went to the side lawn and saw it.
A rainbow. Not just one rainbow, but two.
One inside the other. A stairway to heaven.
The scout came inside and called us.
Amelia and the rest of us bolted outside.
“Look, it’s Grammy Julia going up to heaven!”

The colors, vivid. Appearing, yet insubstantial.
Knock-your-retina-out red.
Off-shore orange.
Van Gogh’s sunflower yellow.
Green, green fields forever.
Blue sky mind.
Indigo Bunting.
African violet.

Tibetan Buddhists say rainbows are signs of realization.
Did all my sister’s good works take her over the top?
Julia, were you a secret yogini?
Amelia thought so.

She stood there, channeling rainbow wisdom.
A: “You see, when a good person dies, they send a rainbow down
to fetch that person up to heaven.”

I ran into the house afterwards to write it all down.
Goodness, the girl was touched by an angel!
I sent her little rainbow-glazed teacups later
to mark this wisdom moment just after her 8th birthday.
They’re too nice to use.
We just look at them on the top shelf of her china closet.

I can picture you as an angel, Julia.
Watching over us all, as Gary says.
You deserve the best you can get
what with all the good you did.

I can see you up there in heaven directing traffic.
“Oops! Careful there.
That’s one dangerous intersection, folks.”

I bet she bakes pies for the Man-Up-In-the-Sky himself.
Darns the elbows of the choir robes.
Sends down solutions for Physics equations in secret code.
Yup, girl.
You’re my favorite angel.
And you know what?
You still dazzle me after all these years.

Four family members rode in the car in which my sister Julia suddenly met her death. Fortunately, the two people who were severely injured pulled through and the fourth one, a small child, was pulled out of the car by a Good Samaritan before the car burst into flames. But when an accident of this type occurs, metaphorically everyone in the family is in the car. One of these was Julia’s grand-daughter, Amelia Grace, my great niece. You’ve just met Amelia, and here is her rainbow wisdom I rushed inside to write down.


Like a bridge up to Heaven, perhaps.
The sunset is like that, too.
Angels climb onto the sunset, trees, and skies.
These are the gates of Heaven.

A week after a good person dies then a rainbow happens.
The rest rise up on a sunset.
The special angels like Grammy Julia
Go up to Heaven on a rainbow.
It’s a bridge. An archway to Heaven.
The best people earn an Express Trip to Heaven.

The rainbow takes you quickly and gloriously up to Heaven.
Especially if it’s a double rainbow.

When I was small, when I was four,
Daddy said, “Stop the car! See?”
We looked smack together on a double rainbow.
You’re more likely to see all the colors then.

It’s a glorious sight to see a double rainbow.
Pouring full strength in the country.
Looking at the glory of it.
Heaven is a place where each angel
finds the place where they used to be.

It makes me sad, but it helps in the long term.
The more I talk about her, I’m crying less.
It might have seemed long to see the rainbow,
but only a few minutes had passed.

After the rain and talking up here,
everything seems cleaner, fresher, prettier.
From this height, especially, on this porch.
Did you know it is really a third story
if you count the basement?

We danced to the music of Rush for Gold.
I think Grammy Julia would have enjoyed it.

My last rainbow poem is “Ashes Washed Clean” written for my godchildren Thomas Alvarado and Andria Ebel when their mother, Teresa Ebel died. I took them on two trips to the ocean. The second trip was to scatter some portion of Teresa’s ashes on the Mendocino Coast, one of her favorite spots on earth.

for Teresa Ebel and Andria and Thomas

Still in a tin can wrapped in gift paper,
her ashes settled, collecting no dust.
The ribbon and paper slipped off easily.
We opened the lid to see the labeled plastic bag,
split at the bottom, ashes sifting onto the newspaper
shielding the kitchen table.

“Do you want a spoon?”
I spooned a tiny bit of that which had been her
into white envelopes lodged inside a black lacquer box.
The tin, re-wrapped, went back to its place on the mantle.
The traveling ashes rode with us along the Northern California Coast.

With us, they saw the sea lions on the rocks
at dusk off Point Arena Lighthouse.
With us, they witnessed the rainbow that danced on forever,
now close at hand, now far away.
A: “Do you think we could find the pot of gold this time?”
T: “Look! It’s right there!”
And it was, until we got there.
Luminous and vibrant. Both there and not there.

The next morning the waves were high, whipped by the wind.
We fed the sea spirits strawberry frosted-cake and apples,
found our own tide pool where we gathered clam shells.
Scrambling up rocks, holding onto each other,
lest we slip into the sea, we cast in the clam shells
a memory at a time.

We fingered her silky ashes, surprised by bone fragments.
Then, each offered a pinch of ashes to the frothing sea,
like salt into rising bread dough.

On a coast their mother loved, we gave her ashes to the sea.
Our first time there and her last.
Like the rainbow, she was both there and not there.
In life she had traveled through rugged waters.
But, now she had gone beyond,
leaving memories, ashes, and a love
washed clean
in waves thundering offshore.

Let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it; let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
—Michel de Montaigne

Remember the moment of death to remember the moment of life. Let us remember to remember to remember.

All will be well,
And all will be well,
And all manner of things
Will be well.
—Dame Julian of Norwich, 14th century English mystic

A Meditation for Practicing Dying

Given the nature of existence with its constant change, you don’t have to wait until something big happens to practice dying. You can start right now meditating on the fluid nature of your body, of time, and of life itself.

Bring your awareness to focus on something in your life that is changing or ending or dying right now. Breathe gently as you consider whatever transition is most significant right now in your life.

Note any feelings that arise—trepidation, excitement, resistance, anger, annoyance, or grief. Every time your feelings get the better of you, become aware of your breathing. Meet your troubled and contracted feelings with your calm and expansive breath.

Breathe, sigh, and stretch out on the river of change. Remember times when you have resisted change in the past. Regard how things turned out in the end—maybe not how you thought they would, or you wanted them to, but in the end, there you were. Wiser, stronger, still alive.

Tip your hat to the poignancy of death and the promise of rebirth. Smile. Relax. Allow yourself to break open. Sit tall, with dignity and patience, watching your breath rise and fall, rise and fall. Pray for the courage to welcome this new change with openness and wisdom.

Then, open your eyes, go back into your life, and do what you have to do, but do it with grace, with hope, and with a lighter touch.

—from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser (N.Y. : Villard Books, an imprint of Random House, 2004)

Copyright 2006 by Janet Grace Riehl
This talk may be printed for your personal use only. You may also share it with your friends.

All rights reserved. No part of this talk nor any of the individual poems may be reprinted or published without written permission of the author—except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.

Thank you for respecting these creative rights.

Poems in this talk
Page numbers
Blood on the Highway (2 lines)
Quail Visitation
Stay a Little Longer
King’s Sake
Circling Around Holes (stanza)
Just Like You and Me (ending)
Amelia’s Double Rainbow Wisdom
Ashes Washed Clean

How You Can Help

I love my book and want it to get out into the world so it can benefit and delight people. There are four things you can do to help that happen.

First, own your own reading copy of Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.
Third, go to Amazon and write a review of Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary. If you indicate that you find the existing reviews helpful, that’s also good for the book.
Fourth, invite me to speak and read for your group. I am shaping readings and talks around ten different themes in Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.

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