One Way to Keep Writing: 'Remember Death'

Russell Banks's biggest inspiration isn't another author—it's a gravestone inscription lurking near his desk.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus and more.

Doug McLean

Novelists spend countless hours in isolation, and some rely on cherished objects for encouragement, companionship, and comfort. Charles Dickens, for instance, placed a row of small figurines on his desk, including dueling bronze frogs and a porcelain monkey, that he had to have arranged in a specific way. Roald Dahl’s desk was cluttered with mementos, including a piece of his own hipbone removed after his RAF plane crashed in Egypt during World War II. Don DeLillo keeps a photograph of the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges on hand and looks at his face—“fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping,” he told the Paris Review—before he settles down to work.

When I asked Russell Banks—whose new story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, is out today—to contribute to this series, he chose to write about his own prized curio. For five decades, he’s shared his office with a gravestone angel. Its inscription, both a mandate and reminder, has been an inspiration throughout Banks’s writing life.

Russell Banks, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is the author of 18 acclaimed works of fiction, including The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction (both adapted into Academy Award-winning films). A Permanent Member of the Family is his short fiction collection in 13 years. The stories here concern the dissolution of relationships and sudden closeness of total strangers: In “Snowbirds,” a woman feels freed by her husband’s fatal heart attack, while in “The Transplant,” a heart recipient meets the widow whose husband’s organ beats inside his chest. Russell Banks wrote this essay from his home in Keene, New York, the small town he has chronicled in these stories and many others.

Russell Banks: I read the phrase the first time a half-century ago in the dark and dusty window of a used furniture store in Keene, New Hampshire. Remember Death. Both words capitalized. They were incised beneath the winged head of a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, plaster angel cast from a late 17th- or early 18th-century slate gravestone. I’d remember if I paid much more than 10 dollars for it—I was newly married then, working as an apprentice plumber and living on a tight budget.

It was a memento mori. I don’t think I even knew what a memento mori was exactly, although growing up in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts, I’d certainly seen plenty of them in old cemeteries and churchyards. Mostly, they struck me as unpleasant reminders of Puritanism, the wages of sin and the flames of hell, more creepy than religious. This was 1963. I was pointedly irreligious and whatever the opposite of puritanical is. But something about this particular reminder got through to me, as if I had never linked the two words together before, had never probed the meaning of either one alone or truly considered the imperative mood, and I had to own it, had to bring it home to our little apartment and hang it above my writing table, so that every time I looked up from my struggle to write my first poems and stories, I would see it, and I would remember death. Which is not all that easy to do when you are still in your early 20s, in excellent health, have not been to war, and have not yet lost to death anyone close to you. Even Jack Kennedy was still alive and well in Washington, D.C.

The phrase and the image of the messenger who carries it—in this case, an angel, which is to say, a servant of the lord, but more often a skull—long precede Puritanism and probably even precede Christianity itself. Tertullian in his Apologeticus (Chapter 33, 4) tells of an ancient Roman general who assigned a servant to stand behind him whenever the crowd celebrated his exploits and remind him, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you will die!”)

Wise counsel, but not nearly as simple as it may seem. Especially when boiled down to those two words. For to remember death is to look both ways before crossing, to gaze simultaneously into the past and towards the future. You’re being told to look back and remember what has occurred to every human being who has ever lived, and look ahead and remember what will inescapably happen to you as well. You’re also being told to monitor your behavior, your past and future behavior, because all behavior has lasting consequences. Your future is lashed to your past. And you’re being told that every second counts, don’t waste a one. It’s not just a hip, winking reminder, saying, like the title of Jim Morrison’s autobiography, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” No, on a profound level, beyond the purely personal, beyond pop-romanticism, beyond politics, beyond history, beyond even genocide and terrorism, it’s saying, Never forget. I took it as a command, not a mere reminder.

The ancient Buddhists exhorted one another to remember death, and no doubt the Hittites had their version too. The homo sapiens who wiped out the Neanderthals and painted the walls of their caves with images of life and death must have thought it. Maybe even the Neanderthals remembered death, although they left no images to suggest it. The command, the need, to remember death seems to go with human consciousness. Perhaps because it’s so easy to forget. Especially in a culture that, like ours, wants almost desperately to forget death. We make every effort to hide it from our sight, and when that’s not possible we shift the language, so we don’t have to say, “Mother has died,” we can say she has “passed.” A majority of Americans believes in a heaven where, after we “pass,” we end up with nicer neighbors and better housing than we had here on earth, rent-free with an eternal lease. Only a tiny minority believes in hell, and most of them are convinced it’s reserved for other people—non-believers, mainly. That is to say, non-Christians.

For half a century I have carried that memento mori with me—from New Hampshire to North Carolina in the mid- and late-’60s, back to New Hampshire, to Jamaica in the mid-1970s, to New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, to upstate New York where I have lived in recent years, and now to Miami where I spend winters. Wherever I have set up my desk and sat myself down to write, my angel has looked down and murmured, Remember Death.

Then in January 2003, on the occasion of my upcoming 60th birthday, my wife and I, my daughter Caerthan and her husband, Alex, and two old friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together. One of the two friends was Mark Saxe, a stone carver and sculptor from Rinconada, New Mexico. Unbeknownst to me, halfway up the mountain my wife hired Mark to dig up, literally, if necessary, a rough piece of gray granite large enough to mark a grave and carve into it the words, Remember Death. In early March, a few weeks before my birthday a large wooden crate arrived at our home in the Adirondacks. It weighed close to 200 pounds and took an hour to open. The stone is the size of a sleeping Labrador dog, more or less the shape of the province of Labrador. The words have been beautifully carved into the stone in a classic Times Roman typeface. My name and birth and death dates are not there yet, for which I remain thankful. But there it is, my gravestone, prepared ahead of time (well ahead of time, one hopes) sitting in the corner of my studio, waiting.