When Charmian, the senile novelist in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, picks up the phone and hears, “Remember you must die,” she cheerfully says yes, she does remember. The other elderly people, who also field similar phone calls, perceive the phone calls as a threat or an accusation. But Charmian has enough craziness and imagination in her to see its practical value. It is, of course, Death calling. The novel, a darkly comic horror story, is also a stark look at the ways in which we navigate our final months.
Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and the author of the bestseller How We Die and several other books on aging and illness, died last winter. He unhinged our collective belief that dying could be managed with ample dignity and exposed the dreary messiness of life.
Spark rids us of the illusion that any of it is pretty. Charmian and her husband, Godfrey, get letters from their son expressing how he loathes them. The other elderly people in Memento Mori are petty: They harangue, contemn, and undermine one another, and their goals are getting money and managing their personal care. After an injection, an elderly patient in a medical ward reflects: “The arthritic pain subsided, leaving the pain of desolate humiliation, so that she wished rather to endure the physical nagging again.” Eventually the woman resolves to take charge of her suffering. “She complained more, called often for the bed pan, and did not hesitate, on one occasion when the nurse was dilatory, to wet the bed as the other grannies did so frequently.” Letting go of the shame of suffering was her way of recovering her dignity.
Nuland says that just as we are unique in life, we are each unique in how we die. But what’s curious to me is the ways in which we are not. We die in a variety of ways, but we unravel in ways that are much the same. Our organs shrink and deteriorate, and we lose our ability to generate, as Nuland says of our biological mechanisms, “new spare parts.” We become lists in hospitals, followed around by our medical histories with annotations about medications and treatments, and eventually we join the long list of the dead. But if we use Nuland as a guide, perhaps we can put aside the desire to die with dignity. Dying badly is simply the nature of what kills you, he explains, emphasizing that death doesn’t often occur as you wish it. Most people, he says, would prefer death to be a coda to a brief, anguish free illness.
Memento Mori ends jarringly, with a two-page death list of the elderly characters we lived with for 200-some pages. One woman gets murdered, and others kick off in ordinary ways (pneumonia, uraemia, coronary thrombosis, carcinomas, myocardial degeneration). Time presses on. There is no character development, no grand denouement. The book ends as if the characters have already been forgotten.
Books of the dead are useful for the living. The ancient Egyptian book of the dead, a catch-all term for all kinds of illustrated funeral texts, functions as a guide, with spells, to help get you to the next life. They were written on the walls of burial chambers or on coffins. Buddhism has a book that bridges the afterlife; the Tibetan Book of the Dead appears to have some useful tips, like how to transfer your consciousness at the moment of dying. (You are on your way to enlightenment.) If not, you suffer the fate of living again, that cyclical existence from which Hindus and Jains want moksha, or deliverance. Dante, of course, similarly tackles the soul’s trek through the Christian afterlife.
Only Judaism has a book of life, though it exists in concept only, not on the page. It occupies the same mental space as death books in how it confronts repentance. It’s said that on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, God decides who has properly repented for their sins, then writes and seals those names in the book of life. It comes from Exodus chapter 32, verse 32, which, in the King James edition of the Bible, says, “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou has written.” God blots the sinners out of his book.
Are we righteous or are we not? Just as in Jainism, the religion of my father, Judaism also requires us to be accountable. Setting aside the various cosmologies and what you get in response to living a good life, the structure of this religious concept is poignant because it gives us occasion to reflect.
Several months before my mother died, she told her health care aide about a dream in which she was asked to sign her name in a big book.
“What does it mean,” she asked the woman, knowing very well, I’m certain, what it meant. It’s probably no coincidence that she was Jewish and was signing a book of life, a recognition that she had reached a point of forgiveness and ease—past suffering, humiliation, and dementia. The book of life, like the books of death, records the fact that yes, you lived. It is also a bookish kind of cemetery in advance of the real one.
When we buried our mother, I looked around to see who her plot was next to. There were my grandparents, their names etched in the tombstones. I looked around at the Jewish names in every direction, the tree my mother would be under, and appreciated the shade and shape of it. My mother drew trees in charcoal for many years. Here was her tree of life above her freshly new life of death. The terms become interchangeable. What is a cemetery if not a book of death? Tombstones record some aspect of people: whether they died young and whether they had children, whether they were housewives or whether they had professions.
“This graveyard is a kind of evidence that other people exist,” says an elderly woman in Memento Mori, looking back on middle age at the time she walked through a graveyard and stooped to read the names on the tombstones. Names are not unimportant. In her biography of Jane Franklin, the sister of Ben Franklin, Jill Lepore uses Jane’s book of the dead to reconstruct her life. This incredibly smart, uneducated, married-with-a-dozen-children woman lacked the opportunities that her prolific brother had. All she produced was this sixteen-page book, or pamphlet, a list of dates and names of family members who died. Lepore makes much of the book and its timeline, for it recorded the people around whom Jane’s life revolved.
Hindus also have a book of death. Hindus take the departed’s ashes (known as “flowers”) to religious towns around the Ganges, where priests keep books on generations of every Hindu family. The family priest performs a ceremony and then asks the family to sign the book of death before he pours the departed’s ashes into the river. When a priest records a death, he also records new additions to the family, such as babies or children-in-law. The records go back hundreds of years. When my father’s friend Kris’s father-in-law died, he and his wife went to a town called Haridwar (“God’s door”) to see her family priest. When Kris found his own family priest, he discovered that the priest was computerizing his records and had taken it upon himself to add the cause of death, a modernization that the priest hoped would help predict hereditary illnesses. Of course, you cough up money for this: Death is not free.
A few months ago, when my dad had his sixth stroke, I asked my sister for our mother’s book of books. She had kept a journal, since 1974, of the 481 books she had read between 1974 and probably the mid-eighties. She didn’t produce much. She had some essays and articles she had written early on in her marriage, a sheaf of letters she sent to her parents from Europe, recipes she collected or which she typed and scribbled notes on from her time living in India, and her book of books.
I scanned the list of books with admiration. It starts with Last of the Just, a novel about Jewish persecution in England, and ends with Susan Cheever’s biography of her father. She read a ton of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Stefan Zweig, Graham Greene, John Cheever, James Dickey, Joan Didion, Yasunari Kawabata, Jean Rhys, Pär Lagerkvist, and everything by Thomas Mann. And there were the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, who I remember her rediscovering in her fifties. In between the literary fiction was evidence of confusion: Women & Anxiety, The Wonderful Crisis of Middle Age, The Will to Live, What to Do with the Rest of Your Life, Alternatives to Teaching. Countless books on back pain fill in the blanks. Lists tell a story. It’s clear what kind of writer she would have been, if she had put her mind to it. Her description, at seventeen, of seeing England from a steamer for the first time, in a letter, was akin to the excitement she expressed to me in a letter during my first trip to Europe, when I was eighteen. Her fifty pages of letters were full of elation. My mother documented the things that had made life bearable despite her health problems and her many varieties of despair. She may not have died in a dignified way, but that doesn’t matter.
“A good death doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul,” says Mortimer, the elderly cop, in Memento Mori. This struck me as the main point of the book. It resonates when I think of my mother’s death and my father’s recognition, during his recent illness, that time was running out.
“The conditions of my illness may not permit me to ‘die well’ or with any of the dignity we so optimistically seek,” Nuland said. My mother died an anguished death, miserable nearly to the end. For a long time, I resented her for it. Why couldn’t she have cleaned up a bit in the hospital? Unlike my father during his recent hospital stint, she was not stoic. On the other hand, she underwent years of pathological depression, terrible pain, heart disease, colitis, and the loss of most of her faculties. It took me a long time to recognize that I was the fool with respect to my mother’s dying days. It was I who was undignified to assume that she should die the death that I admire according to the going rate: our collectively inadequate, cleaned-up version of our unraveling. “Death belongs to the dying and those who love them,” Nuland said. You suffer and grieve, and good for you if it’s not messy.
“If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life,” says Mortimer in Memento Mori, trying (barely) to find the perpetrator of the macabre “Remember you must die” phone calls. “It is poets and philosophers who tend to think clearly about death,” Nuland says. What if we all did that?
Diane Mehta’s poems, essays, interviews, and articles have appeared in Slate, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Believer, BOMB, and many other publications. She lives with her son in Brooklyn and is writing a novel about mixed-race parents in 1946 India.
“Remember You Must Die” originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015)