The good death resurrected – Memento Mori and Santa Muerte as spirit of the times

Co-authored by Dr Kate Kingsbury * and Professor R. Andrew Chesnut

After spending the last decade searching for a Mexican folk saint whose name translates to both Holy Death and Holy Death, we have been forced to grapple with the meaning of the near universal desire for euthanasia, the original meaning of which derives from the Greek. “Eu” means “good” and “thanatos” means “death”, put together the term means “good death”. Euthanasia is thus defined as a rapid and peaceful death preventing further suffering. One of the main draws of the three Latin American Death Saints, Santa Muerte, San la Muerte, and Rey Pascual, is their reputation for giving the faithful and their loved ones a relatively peaceful end of life. In a Mexico and Guatemala beset by endless drug wars and the Covid-19 epidemic, there is no shortage of bad deaths in which lives are prematurely and painfully choked by violence and more recently, the virus. . Of course, the devotees first beg the saints of death for the protection and healing of these plagues, but in case their requests fall on deaf ears, believers can turn to Our Lord of the Good Death, one of the nicknames of the Argentinian San la Muerte, and ask him, to him or to his fellow holy skeletons, euthanasia.

If the desire for a good death is so central in the mission of the holy skeletons that two of them bear it in their names, Holy Death, it is also because the desire to die peacefully has been an important aspect of the Christian belief, especially Catholic, and practice. The original holy death, of course, was that of Christ on the cross, which, though anything but a peaceful end, made possible the hope of eternal life for his disciples. The idea of ​​the holy death of Jesus was so important that there are Iberian Catholic invocations of Christ and Mary called Christ of the Good Death (Cristo de la Buena Muerte in Spanish) and Our Lady of the Good Death (Nossa Senhora from Boa Morte in Portuguese). Catholic brotherhoods in Spain and Portugal, and later in several Latin American nations, formed on the axis of these deadly manifestations of Jesus and Mary. Spanish brotherhoods, such as the Cofradía de Penitencia de la Buena Muerte in Cadiz, would wear their beautifully carved effigies of the Virgin and the Christ of the Good Death on Good Friday as part of the famous Holy Week processions in southern Italy. Spain.

For Iberian and Latin American Catholics, holy death was not only about the monumental sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but also about their own good death and that of those close to them. This could only be guaranteed by godliness and a sinless life, for a good death also meant avoiding the fiery pits of hell and being allowed to enter through the pearl gates. Daily prayer, keeping the Ten Commandments, and frequent confession – especially on one’s deathbed – would result in forgiveness of transgressions. The good Christian must be prepared for the Last Judgment.

The ubiquitous memento mori imagery, especially skulls and skeletons, in Catholic Europe served as a reminder to believers of their inevitable death, urging them to lead a Christian life free from worldly vanities that could only deflect hope. of eternal life in heaven. Indeed, Vanitas’ paintings, created by Dutch artists, are filled with skulls, withered flowers and rotten fruit as lessons in the fleeting pleasures of time. Poets also called the man a bubble in the maxim popularized by Erasmus, the Dutch Catholic theologian homo bulla is, which has also become a leitmotif in Christian paintings. Homo bulla is, just like the withered flowers of the memento mori, served to remind viewers of the brevity of life and the arbitrariness of death; humans might think they are substantial, but like the bubble that disappears with a simple prick, life is extinguished in the blink of an eye, often without warning before our helpless hands.

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Memento Mori reminded Christians to stay on the right path, adopting the precepts advocated, such as prayer and a life without sin, Catholics could then aspire to a good death in which their life would end peacefully surrounded by their loved ones and with the last sacraments administered by a priest, allowing the dead direct access to heaven. However, just as the Black Death made euthanasia impossible for millions of Europeans seven centuries ago, Covid-19 now denies a good death to hundreds of thousands of people around the world who could die suddenly, alone. and with few means to relieve their suffering. . No wonder the fastest growing new religious movement in the West is centered around the Holy Death (Santa Muerte).

Prayer remains an essential coping strategy in times of coronavirus, whether for faith healing or to prevent contagion. While many churches can be closed across the world, people continue to call for divine intervention to prevent a bad death from Covid-19. In Mexico, many temples of Santa Muerte remain open, like that of Yuri Mendez in Cancun. Her last Rosary of September 2, 2021 focused on healing the coronavirus, many prayers were offered to the popular saint of death so that she could not only prevent disease, heal the sick, but also end the pandemic and thus end the suffering and mala muerte (bad death) from the virus. Yuri Mendez Shrine features many effigies of the folk saint of death, but his most beloved, Yuritzia, was specially dressed for the occasion. Dressed as a frontline nurse in white and blue, but with the lacy headdress often seen in Spanish depictions of the Virgin Mary, the folk saint syncretically has secular and sacred healing methods. Participants chanted in unison as Yuri guided them in prayer, “Santa Muerte save us and the whole world.” Santa Muerte, as the most recent manifestation of a good and holy death, continues to remind us of our fragility and the brevity of life on this earth.

*Dr Kate Kingsbury received his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Oxford and is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on Santa Muerte and the religion of the African diaspora. She is writing the next “Daughters of Death: The Female Followers of Santa Muerte” for Oxford University Press. She is a polymath interested in exploring the intersections between anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, sociology and critical theory. Dr Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Dr Kingsbury is a strong supporter of equal rights and the power of education to improve global disparities. She also volunteers for a non-profit organisation which aims to empower and educate girls in Uganda.

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