Skulls kind of creep me out. I mean, I know that I have one and with 6 babies, I’ve cared a lot about their noggins and the shape of their skull and any damage to befall them… but naked skulls with those empty eye sockets?
Those are creepy.
Have you ever noticed them in images of saints? Catholic imagery can be on the weird side, with skulls on desks as saints write and Saint Lucy’s eyes held on a platter, and the pelican who drops blood to her offspring. Eww. But then again, the meaning to the imagery can be fascinating.
Thanks to other blogs and the book of Sirach, I’ve started to appreciate skulls in religious art–specifically the memento mori and sugar skull art. It all began when someone shared this article about a religious sister who started keeping a skull on her desk. My eyebrows raised, I clicked over and read her article. What I thought I’d find, I can’t remember. Any assumptions I had as I clicked over were nearly obliterated as I finished reading, especially since that day I’d also read poignant words from Sirach (coincidence? I doubt it. The Holy Spirit is not one for coincidence).
Remember your last days and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! –Sirach 28:6
The idea behind memento mori is to remember your death, and live your life well, with the goal of heaven. We will die, no doubt about it. We simply don’t know when, so it’s a good idea to live well always. It reminds me of the Lenten Ash Wednesday services, when we’re marked with the blackest of ash on our foreheads, as the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken as the ashy cross appears on our (fleshy) skulls.
I find it beautifully significant and rich in Lent, to remember death as the dead of winter nears an end and new life promises to return with the spring. It is like a fresh start each year, to meditate upon our existence during that season and return to the Lord of life by leaving behind the bad habits and things which do not bring life and Christ to our souls. It is also during Lent that we fix our gaze upon the crucifix, that wood bloodied and splintered, that most-perfect and glorious body now scourged, crucified, and lifeless. Yes, Catholics do look Death squarely in the face and claim triumph over it. We know and love Him who beat death by freely giving his life, and it is this we truth we cling to in the Resurrection.
How interesting and beautiful that the sugar skulls and memento mori which appear in decor and celebrations during the autumn also bring our attention back to death? As the harvest fills our tables with colorful bounty, we think about the dead. All the harvest proclaims how good life has been, and the dying world around reminds us that life fades. In tune with the season, our morbid fascination with our own death appears in decor and costume. From Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve–I wish we could return to that over the horrors of present-day Halloween) to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, we simply cannot stop thinking about and celebrating the dead. While Halloween’s decor focuses on the morbid, the next two days seek life in the midst of death. And that contradiction is what I’m starting to appreciate in sugar skulls. In taking a cruel and gruesome image of death, and decorating it with vibrant colors and flowers and intricate designs, we mock death and proclaim life instead.
This is, I think, precisely what Jesus wants for me. In remembering that I will die, I look sin and death square in the eye and choose life. In choosing life, I must choose Christ who is Life and the only one who can preserve my life even in death. If I die tomorrow, I want to live today full of love and life. If I suffer some cruel pain, like cancer, I want to still live even while my body dies. To remember my death and choose life means to choose Christ and turn from sin, anger, pride, and all the things that keep me from being the woman God made me to be. It means I choose hope over despair, it means I choose to see my blessing instead of the drudgery in chores and other everyday tasks, and it means I offer my suffering as a prayer.
Call me crazy. **EDIT 10/30/17 after some kind women pointed out that there is more to the sugar skull than I’ve written, I have new knowledge and a few more thoughts: First, the practice of memento mori (a plain skull) is a tradition, but not a matter of doctrine or dogma. It’s not necessary. You can have an opinion, or no opinion. Second, the sugar skull has ancient origins, possibly back to Aztec times. It’s specific tradition and place in Latin American culture has a complex history, from what I’ve read. Third, and VERY IMPORTANT: THIS IS NOT SANTA MUERTE. Santa Muerte is evil. One of my kind readers alerted me to this growing and dangerous trend to “pray” to Santa Muerte, and that in pop culture, the glorification of death is changing the focus, which is dangerous. I so appreciate her input. Evil has no place in my life or home, which is why I strive daily to focus more on what a life modeled after Christ’s should look like. In these next days, I’m going to pray, look to the saints for intercessory prayer, and remember to pray for the dead who so need our prayers to hopefully reach Heaven. Oh, and also? I’m going to keep remembering my own death, asking God for the grace to live life with Christ-like love.
But if you come to my house, now you’ll know why I will have a sugar skull magnet on the fridge, and quite possibly still have this framed in my entryway. It’s just me, remembering my death while I try not to complain with every load of laundry, spilled cup, and feverish child.