Memento Mori and The Gospel
How we die matters for nothing compared to how we live.
“Memento Mori” is an old Latin phrase meaning “remember that you will die.” During the Apostasy, Latin Christians focused heavily on their mortality and the fact that they had no guarantees as to how long they would live. The idea was to constantly live as holy a life as possible so as not to go to the grave with unresolved sins.
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints breaks with many doctrines that came about during the Great Apostasy, this isn’t necessarily one of them. The idea that mortality is finite was a central theme in many of the teachings of the prophet Alma, as he repeatedly warned us that this life was the time to prepare to meet God. (Alma 12:24)
It’s the prophet Ether who gives us a particular perspective on this idea, though. After several centuries, the Jaredites had brought themselves to the point of a vicious civil war that would have made the Nephites blush. They utterly destroyed themselves, and Ether–their last prophet–saw it all. He was forced to hide in a cave to avoid being caught and slain by his people and later snuck out at night to observe what had happened so he could write it all down.
Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Envision your city, probably a first-world American metropolis or close to it, suddenly going Full South Chicago with no way back. Everyone is armed. Everyone is suspicious. Everyone hates everybody, and everyone is killing everyone. Knowing this, you don’t run away and flip the bird over your shoulder, but rather you stick around to record it because future generations will need to know what happened.
With that context, think about Ether’s final words:
Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God. (Ether 15:34)
Are some methods of dying preferable to others? Absolutely. We’d all like to go in our sleep, quietly, comfortably, at a time of our choosing, likely after a full life of everything we wanted to do.
But that’s out of our control. We could pass tomorrow in any of a hundred ways. We could languish through unimaginable temporal suffering at every turn, for years.
Yet in the eternal perspective, it doesn’t matter. What does the Lord expect of us while we are here, while we yet live?
The answer is simple: repent, and do good works. Serve others. Keep our covenants. Metanoeo.
Moroni must have had Ether on his mind as he carried the gold plates north to what would become New York, some 1100 years before Columbus. It would be impossible not to! Moroni abridged Ether’s record and put it in the Book of Mormon. Then he watched as the Nephites refused to repent, refused to return to Christ, and chose instead to fight the Lamanites, thinking they could win, never believing that they could be obliterated. They were utterly destroyed.
Moroni knew how Ether felt. And what did he do?
I have not as yet perished… Wherefore, I write a few more things, contrary to that which I had supposed…that perhaps they may be of worth unto my brethren, the Lamanites, in some future day…
(Moroni 1:1, 4)
He kept working.
He wrote down a few things that hadn’t yet been recorded, including the sacramental prayers (Moroni 4 &5), a detailed revelation on charity (Moroni 7), and most importantly, the promise that each of us could know the Book of Mormon was true by the power of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10: 3-5)
Imagine if he hadn’t done that. Imagine if he had simply finished compiling the Book of Ether, lived the rest of his life on the run, buried the plates, and died. “Well, they have all of the rest of the book, they can piece it together.”
No. He knew he would die, even if he didn’t know how or when. But with the time that remained, he added more to the Book of Mormon. 1600 years later, our lives are better for it.
Brothers and sisters, I’m not looking forward to death. I plan to live to age 100, just because I want to. Nevertheless, you, I, and everyone will all die. It doesn’t matter how or when.
What matters is how we live, who we serve, and whether we constantly correct our course toward Heaven every day. Are we studying with our families? Are we teaching our children? Are we magnifying our callings, ministering to those around us, and living a Christlike life?
To quote another great prophet, “Time is running out.”
Let’s get to it.
“Answers to Prayer,” Elder Brook P. Hales, General Conference April 2019
“Where Will This Lead?” Pres. Dallin H. Oaks, General Conference April 2019
Graham Bradley is a truck driver and a novelist. He served a mission to Barcelona, Spain, from 2003-2005. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBeRad.