I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky
That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.
This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever. By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave. I wonder how that worked out? The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.” Long ago, the head fell off. “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.” The face has been smashed. There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” However, who is there to look on his works? “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.
Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently. Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts. The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens. It’s true of your house. It’s true of planet Earth itself. In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit. (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.) Bye-bye, Mother Earth!
Memento mori. That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.” It’s a reminder that we are not immortal. Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer. I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.
There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days. “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.” It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.
Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans. We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”
Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”? Well, here’s another one. “You can’t take it with you!”
That seems to be the message of Psalm 49. We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.” It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth. The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting. It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament. It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time. It means “transient” or “fleeting.” It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.
Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!
There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it. I’ll just mention a few points. I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.
That’s some shaky ground. We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever. Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.
The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9). Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely. There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road. And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen. The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.
Of course, there’s always the vampire option!
Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16. “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.” We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence. Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.” (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)
Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight. But resistance is futile. (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg. You will be assimilated.) Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown. If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”
Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention. It is a repeated thought. “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor. I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal. We don’t last long. Like our dogs, we age and weaken. And die.”
I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie. I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.
Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.” “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive. It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts. The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude. Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”
I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned. “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” “I love you.” That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind. No regrets.
I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father. Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time. My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it. I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home. I flew to Nashville the next day. My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.
My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room. They had already said their goodbyes. So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed. His eyes were closed. I held his hand and told him that I loved him. He didn’t last much longer. I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived. My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set. He was welcomed with its orange-red rays. It was like something from a movie.
It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).
I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death. We are routinely reminded of the Covid count. In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear. However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.” Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life. Thanks be to God.
 חֶלֶד, cheled