''Beauty lies in the details of the grandest structures, and the very finest''.

A nun's word of comfort : You are going to die'. A sister with a taste for punk believes in facing dark realities.

Before she entered the Daughter of St. Paul convent in 2010, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, read a biography of the order's founder, an Italian priest who was born in the 1880s.

He kept a ceramic skull on his desk, as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Sister Aletheia, a punk fan as a teenager, thought the morbid curio was ''super punk rock,'' she recalled recently. She thought vaguely about acquiring a skull for herself someday.

These days, Sister Aletheia has no shortage of skulls. People send her skull mugs and skull rosaries in the mail and share photos of their skull tattoos. A ceramic skull from a Halloween store sits on her desk. Her Twitter name includes a skull and crossbones emoji.

That is because since 2017, she has made it her mission to revive the practice of ''momento mori,'' a Latin phrase meaning ''Remember Your Death.'' The concept is to intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.

It can seem radical in an era in which death - until very recently - has become so easy to ignore.

''My life is going to end, and I have a limited amount of time,'' Sister Altheeia said. ''We naturally tend to think of our lives as a kind of continuing and continuing.''

Sister Aletheia's project has reached Catholics all over the United States, via social media, a momento mori prayer journal - even merchandise emblazoned with a signature skull. Her followers have found unexpected comfort in grappling with death during the coronavirus pandemic.

''Momento mori is : Where am I headed, where do I want to end up?'' said Becky Clements, who coordinates religious education at her Catholic parish in Lake Charles, La., and has incorporated the idea into a curriculum used by other parishes in her diocese.

''Momento mori works perfectly with what my students are facing, between the pandemic and the massive hurricanes.''

Ms. Clements keeps a large resin skull on her own desk, inspired by Sister Aletheia.

Sister Aletheia rejects any suggestion that the practise is morbid. Suffering and  death are facts of life; focusing only on the ''bright and shiny'' is superficial and inauthentic. ''Why try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it because we think that's where we'll find happiness,'' she said.

''But it's actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.''

The practice of regular meditation on death is a venerable one. Saint Benedict instructed his monks in the sixth century to ''keep death daily before your eyes,'' for example. For Christians like Sister Aletheia, it is inextricable from the promise of a better life after death.

But the practice is not uniquely Christian,. Mindfulness of death is a tradition within Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca were among the early thinkers who recommended  ''practising'' death as a way to cultivate meaning and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying food are recurring motifs in art history.

For  almost all of humanity's history, people died at a younger age than we do now, more frequently died at home and had less medical control over their final days.

Death was far less predictable, and far more visible. ''To us death is exotic,'' said Joanna Ebenstein, founder of the Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based enterprise that offers events and books focused on death, art and culture. But that's a luxury particular to our time and place. 

The pandemic, of course, has made death impossible to forget. Since last spring, Ms. Ebenstein has conducted a series of memento mori classes online, in which students explore the global history of representations of death and then create their own.

Final projects have included a miniature coffin, a series of letters to be delivered postmortem and a deck of tarot cards composed of photographs taken by a husband who recently  died

''For the first time in my lifetime, this is a topic not just interesting to a bunch of hipsters,'' Ms. Ebenstein said. ''Death is actually relevant.''

The World Students Society thanks author Ruth Graham.


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