Memento Mori

Many years ago, I ordered a human skull through the mail, ostensibly to study the anatomy of the vascular and nervous systems reflected in its architecture.

The cranial nerves exit from the brain to the organs of the head through the various foramina or bony passageways, while arteries enter the brain in the opposite direction. The optic canals behind the eyes accommodate the optic nerves, the foramen ovale the mandibular nerve, and the foramen rotundum the maxillary nerve, while the “great foramen” or foramen magnum at the base of the skull allows the spinal cord an opening to begin its long journey downwards beside the vertebral column.

The skull was perfect in every detail, an object of beauty and marvelous design. I could only think of it as a semi-sacred relic of another human life, most likely passed in some third world country. Much of the attraction in possessing it was as a memento mori, a reminder of death, much like the skull seen on the writing desk in medieval paintings of Saint Jerome, best known for his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin.

Eventually, a religiously devout older cousin, on discovering that I had this traditional ornament of saints and ascetics, begged it of me to adorn her bedroom dresser or bedside table, promising to return it eventually. She moved to Florida and has since passed on, without my receiving it back. In any case, I had kept the skull in its hinged black box with carrying handle, and not out on display, so I have not much missed it.

My mother died recently, having been a healthy woman in her nineties who was living alone and still driving her own car. She was well on a Wednesday, felt ill on Thursday, and was in a coma that evening, dying 36 hours later from septic shock precipitated by a kidney stone and a urinary tract infection. Although the loss was not totally unexpected, the abruptness of it was a shock and just such a reminder as the skull. It was as if we were on a journey together by train and, on reaching her stop, she stepped down onto the platform, leaving me to continue without her.

I just read a review of a production of Ionesco’s black comedy “Exit the King”, about the last 90 minutes of the life of a 400-plus-year-old monarch who knows the hour of his death and initially resists accepting his mortality. Ionesco’s purpose in writing the play, in his own words, was to provide the viewer with “an apprenticeship in dying….This seems to me to be the most important thing we can do, since we’re all of us dying men who refuse to die.”

If nothing else, remembering that the train will reach the stop for each of us sooner or later can help to place our experience of life in some perspective.

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