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Memento Mori

by Caleb Baumgardner | November 19, 2020 at 9:22 a.m.

The title of this week’s column is Latin for, “remember death.” It is something that I do this time of year.

When I was in college, I went on a pilgrimage that took me, among other places, to Rome. The group of students I was with toured the catacombs, where Christians of the ancient Church gathered for their liturgies in secret because of the Roman persecutions. Written on the walls from those days approximately two millennia ago were prayers for the dead, for souls in purgatory. Historians can trace the tradition of prayer for the dead back to Christianity’s inception, a practice that the first Christians had because of their Jewish roots. The Second Book of Maccabees, which was included in the canon of Scripture when it was finalized in A.D. 393 at the Council of Carthage, shows where those roots come from.

I say all of that to say that in the month of November I pray for the repose of the souls of the departed more than usual. Many Catholics do. November is a month when we remember our mortality and meditate upon the fleeting, transient nature of our lives and the world in which we live them. I have a custom of going into cemeteries and praying for the souls of those buried there, that God will complete the work begun in them and that they might enter into Heaven.

One afternoon after work a couple of Novembers ago, I took a walk through downtown and passed by Hamburger Row Cemetery. You may laugh at the name, but that part of town bore that moniker a century ago when after the oil boom one could find those streets lined with makeshift food kiosks ready to serve hungry oil field workers.

That particular cemetery is very old, and as I passed, I noticed a barely legible tombstone belonging to a lady who had died around the time El Dorado was founded in the mid-19th century. Most of the tombstones were no longer legible.

I passed through the gate and it creaked as I entered. Looking around, I said a Requiem Aeternam (Latin for “Eternal Rest”, a Christian prayer that dates back to the 8th century) for the dead and stood there for a few moments thinking about mortality. Cemeteries are always curiously and especially quiet, no matter what may be happening in the environs around them.

I left the cemetery and began walking the few blocks back to my jeep. As I got back toward the center of downtown, I watched the sunset. It struck me just how impermanent all of it was. One day, even perhaps a day 10,000 years hence, all the bustle around me would likely be replaced by silence. Maybe even the sort of silence one finds in a cemetery.

As I drove home, a poem came to me. I worked on it a bit that night. It shares the name of this column.

“I watch the sun die in the west.

And in the air, the Autumn chill

Whispers a final request.

Yellow, orange, and fiery red,

A funeral bouquet

As nature dies,

As one day surely so I will.

Time flies,

Therefore, remember death.”

Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]


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