In September of 2022 a public figure gave us one final lesson—no one, not even her Majesty the Queen, lives forever. Of course, everyone teaches this lesson to the living eventually, but even though we knew better, Queen Elizabeth II felt exempt from this object lesson. For most of us, the Queen of England has always been there, a distant monarch presiding over the Commonwealth since before we were born. Her passing ended an era that felt endless. With the announcement that she had died, we felt the shift, the world a touch off balance, over the end of a life. It’s true, our minds conceded, everyone must die.
The words sung over the body of the Queen echo through the vaulted ceilings of Westminster Abbey and the recesses in our minds:
“Thou only art immortal, the Creator and Maker of man:
And we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return.”
The loss of one life reminded us of the fragility of each and every one.
God could have used any substance to make us humans. He could have mingled the elements of stars, moonbeams, and the aurora borealis. He could have mixed the magic of iridescent wings and spider webs, the strength of mountains, and the persistence of the sea.
But he chose dust out of which to form us.
I remember as a child watching the particles of sand inside the hourglass egg timer as I waited for my perfectly soft-boiled egg. My egg cup was ready, bread in the toaster to make fingers to dip into the yolk. At first, it seemed like the sand in the timer barely moved, one tiny grain at a time. Perhaps it was hunger that made the three minutes seem like hours. Ever so slowly the balance of the sand was flowing from top to bottom. Then near the end, the sand appeared to speed up and before I knew it, all had settled on the bottom.
This has been how time feels as I age. Early in life, the days were endless, there seemed to be more time than I knew what to do with. Waiting for a special day to arrive was agonizingly slow. I doubted I would ever grow old enough to drive or make my own decisions. And now as I near my sixth decade on earth, time is rushing. There are so many things that spill over the banks of my days, “not enough time in a day” is a common complaint. I blink and another season has passed; the sands of time quickening. I am reminded of my limited spell on this earth—how close I am to returning to dust.
I watch my mother struggle with mobility as she ages. I notice the decline in my dad as his mind is slowly losing its power from Alzheimer’s disease. For months I have been battling a chronic cough and a hip that regularly sends out pain signals. I forget that my body is not as young as it once was. It now objects when required to do hours of gardening, painting, or housecleaning. This “jar of clay” needs constant care, feeding, and tending.
Like our household appliances, it seems we have built-in obsolescence, a best-before date. I do not like it. Why have we been fashioned from dust subject to erosion as time sweeps past? To my mind, we should be made of sturdier stuff.
On Ash Wednesday we hear the words, “remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” We are marked with ashes as a visible reminder of our end. These words take me back to the day I entered the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones) in Evora, Portugal.
Constructed by Franciscan monks in the late 16th century who were tasked with consolidating the bodies of surrounding cemeteries, they constructed the walls with the stacked and visible bones of some 5,000 corpses. It was a practical solution to the overcrowding of cemeteries but also an object lesson to the town of Évora, noted for its wealth. It stood as a call to meditate on the transience of material things in the undeniable presence of death. The sign posted over the doorway reads, “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours.” It was a stark reminder to pay attention to how I am living in light of the brevity of it all.
The yearly ritual of ashes on Ash Wednesday points us in the same direction.
Memento mori is Latin for “remember you will die,” a concept attributed to Socrates. It refers to the practice of considering our own end. This ancient practice was promoted by philosophers throughout the centuries in order to encourage us to make the most of the days we have. It was thought when faced with a limited number of our days, we will live more intentionally and virtuously.
The ancient wisdom writer who penned Psalm 90 framed it this way, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
He remembers we are dust, another psalmist assures us, and yet he chooses these bodies of dust and dirt to inhabit. What can it mean for the one who spun matter and light into solar systems to become dust with us?
When the God of the universe slipped on flesh and came to earth, the value of our human bodies was affirmed. Our flesh hallowed. Fragile as it is, a human body became the dwelling of God. And he continues now to dwell within the bodies of his people.
When the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” he offered solidarity in our suffering, awareness of our numbered days, and compassion for our weaknesses and pain. To share in these bodies of dust with us meant experiencing all the longing and ache, joy, and gladness that make up our lives.
God remembers our fragile state as dust, easily blown away. Yet he does not look upon our weakness and frailty with contempt but rather compassion. He knows our frame as the psalmist asserts, and he knows what it is to experience his own physical end. He has no desire to trample us underfoot, but to make us vessels of glory.
Jesus knew our privilege just as well as he knew our vulnerabilities. Jesus's body of dust was bound to perish but when it did the promises of God he carried would find their fulfillment.
The way to life was death.
In these bodies of dust, we, too, bear the weight of glory—the promise of immortality, resurrection, and glorified bodies. As our vessels fracture and the particles of dirt start to slouch back toward the earth, the contents of hope spring forth filling in the melody of our song of death. Yes, everyone must die, but the end of a life is not the end of the story. God will remake his world and Jesus has opened the door to it.
Humanity may be clay and fragile, but we are chosen to hold more glory than all the stars that light up the night. Perhaps this is why we need the reminder that we are dust, fragile, and that we have obsolescence built right in; so that we remember the radiance of the hope we hold.
It’s true, death comes to all. But thanks be to God, we can follow Jesus through death on our way to true life.
 The Russian Kontakion of the Departed (Give Rest, O Christ, To Your Servant With Your Saints)
Words: Translated William J. Birkbeck (1869-1916) Music: Kiev Melody
 Psalm 90:12
 Psalm 103:13–14
 John 1:14
 Psalm 103:14
Cover image by Austin Ban.