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  • Writer's pictureRita Lança

On holidays, contemplating death?

Inspired by a visit to the St John's Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, today I write about a subject that has bubbled up in me from a long time - the contemplation of death.

Latin culture coined it with the expression Memento Mori, meaning "remember, that you too will die". Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, exemplified this practice in a meditation: Imagine that you have died today, look at your dead body. Then consider your life from now on, what do you want to do with the time that you have left?

Historically, the contemplation of death has assumed various configurations, manifesting cultural, religious and social influences, who have the common denominator, which are a set of practices that seek to awaken in our daily life the awareness of the transitory nature of life and its finitude. For example, the Sufis, an Islamic sect, contemplate death by singing; the Cistercian monks, everyday, used to remove a shovel of sand from what would one day be their grave.

But why is it important to contemplate death?

It is important to refocus on what is really significant and a priority in our lives. Many wise men say that it is the elixir of life, that which gives it consistency and flavour.

Contemplating death does not require any particular context, moreover, it is all the more fruitful when immersed in daily life.

The question that often baffles me is why are contemporary societies so far away from this practice? (a subject to which I will return in the future, if I don't die in the meantime :)

As far as I'm concerned, as I shared in the podcast, contemplating death is a daily practice in my life, proven by the fact that I'm on holidays writing this article.

Contemplating death at St John's Cathedral

Returning to the beautiful Maltese Baroque Cathedral... I stepped into the atrium, which was the start of my visit, with a glimpse at what is below my feet, printed on a tombstone, was the magnificent image of a skeleton representing death.

This was followed by dozens of tombs, belonging to the knights of the Order of Malta, which completely cover the Cathedral floor.

Contemplating Death - floor of St John's Cathedral in Valletta
St John's Cathedral in Valletta

These tombs spoke to me of our connection with nature and the cyclicality of our relationship with the time of life that flows. To me, they were expressing the desire of these knights to be remembered beyond death and the importance of representing themselves by expressing, amongst others, the strong connection with the animals that accompanied them in their lives.

In these tombs I saw some other facets of death, like a loved one coming to get us, representation of death with angel wings.

In this succession of intermittencies of death, I touched the pulsating life-blood of Caravaggio.

The painter stepped into the Cathedral oratory as a knight, and in that space, would come to create that which is considered his masterpiece, the "Beheading of St John the Baptist". It is the only known painting signed by him, and it is significant that he put his signature on the blood gushing from the saint's throat.

This work is highly symbolic because it reminds us of the ephemeral nature of life’s events and their impermanence. He was expelled from the Order of Malta, right in front of the painting, his greatest work which is displayed for the world to see. It is also a mark that remains beyond the fugacity of death, a light that shines through the darkness of death, a story that has been told, which pulls us into the reality which characterizes his painting and which magnificently displays human history and its finite nature.

Still with Caravaggio, another work by the painter - "Saint Jerome Writing" - carries clues to

contemplate life and death - in the book he wrote (which for me represents the choice of how we want to live), in the skull (representation of death summoned to daily life, in the toil of days) and in the stone and the crucifix (the anchors we choose in life).

Following Pema Chodron's lead:

Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?

Wishing you good contemplations :)


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