October 26, 2018

Skull rosary offers spiritual lessons in life and death

Sam Bunch prays using a skull rosary inside Annunciation Church in Brazil. (Submitted photo by Daniel Tews)

Sam Bunch prays using a skull rosary inside Annunciation Church in Brazil. (Submitted photo by Daniel Tews)

By Daniel Tews (Special to The Criterion)

BRAZIL—Pope St. John Paul II, describing his favorite prayer, said, “The simple prayer of the rosary marks the rhythm of human life.”

Catholics clutch their prayer-worn beads tightly through the joys and sorrows of life. The faithful pray in thanksgiving at marriage and childbirth, and for Mary’s aid in sickness and for a good death.

There is an ancient tradition, however, that seems to bring joy and sorrow, life and death together—the skull rosary.

This may seem to some to be sacrilegious. Mary, our Mother, shouldn’t be associated with something as morbid as a skull. Or should she?

‘Remember the end of your life’

The skull rosary has been in use since the early 16th century. It symbolizes the idea of the memento mori, or the remembrance of death, according to an article on the Artnet News website. The skull rosary also seems to fit in with the teachings of the faith.

The Book of Sirach says, “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (Sir 7:36).

Ministers tracing ashes on worshippers’ foreheads in the form of a cross on Ash Wednesday often say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Catechists remind students of the last four things—death, judgment, heaven and hell.

The Church has recognized that a constant reminder of mortality keeps the gaze on the afterlife: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

The skull rosary and memento mori has nothing to do, however, with the so-called Saint Death or, as they say in Spanish, Santa Muerte. This new, demonic cult, growing in popularity in Mexico and Latin America, mixes some aspects of Marian devotion with the occult.

In his 2016 visit to Mexico, Pope Francis warned, “I am particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money which, in the end, ‘moth and rust consume’ and ‘thieves break in and steal’ ” (Mt 6:19).

Value in contemplating morality

Sam Bunch, a member of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, has found great comfort and spiritual growth through a devotion to the rosary. He has a large collection of them, including many skull rosaries.

“I find that [praying the rosary] suffuses my life with the Gospel, calms my mind, allows me to focus on what is important in the present moment,” Bunch explained, “and cultivates in me a disposition of tenderness and love toward Christ and his Mother.”

At a time when worldly cares were taking over his spiritual life, Bunch developed an interest in skull rosaries.

“For the most part, death hasn’t been something that is close to me,” Bunch said. “We don’t see the routine and countless deaths that result in the food on our table. We also don’t see the deaths of our family from incurable diseases at nearly the rates our ancestors would have.”

Without seeing death, Bunch said he began to forget about the importance of a holy death and eternal life.

“That eventually sunk in as a spiritual lesson after many years,” he said, “and I realized why it was so valuable to keep in mind our own mortality.”

‘Keeps me focused on spiritual life’

Bunch found inspiration from saints who also saw value in frequently pondering mortality.

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict, he said, “which exhorts the brethren to ‘keep death daily before your eyes’ [Chapter 4, #47], was a capstone” to his understanding that recalling one’s mortality could enhance the desire for a holy death and life forever in God’s presence.

“One of the interesting things about St. Francis [of Assisi],” Bunch added, “is that he is known as a joyful, animal-loving man who lived in true solidarity with the poor. And he also carried a skull around with him. He is even said to have slept with the skull and brought the skull along to breakfast with the brethren.”

Bunch explained that though many today find this practice morbid and depressing, he started digging deeper.

“One of the most valuable things [the skull rosary] has done for me is to keep me focused on the spiritual life and avoid the pitfall of focusing too much energy on my day-to-day worries. Using a rosary with skulls on it means that I can’t really avoid thinking in quite visceral terms about Christ’s death. I can’t abstract it away to avoid dealing with the horror of what he endured for us on the cross.”

St. Paul teaches followers of Christ to unite their death with Christ’s death, and only then does the resurrection become real. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5), he writes.

Rosaries with symbolism

Bunch designs rosaries and has them made by a third party. His designs emphasize different aspects of the spiritual life. He says he recognized that not only are the beads, crosses and medals useful for counting prayers, but they are also a means of inspiring deeper prayer and understanding of theology.

He adds particular colors for the beads and different crosses to connect the artistry with the spiritual purpose of the rosary.

For example, Bunch said, “On the Celtic rosary that has a very eucharistic symbolism in the Celtic cross, I really wanted the red cord to symbolize the Precious Blood.”

According to Bunch, adding the skull beads can serve a specific purpose, too. For instance, they might be used particularly to pray for a friend or family member who has died.

Or they may be used simply to focus intentionally on memento mori.

“A rosary with skull beads is one nice way to do that,” he said. “Or in my case, lots of rosaries with skull beads because I need lots of reminders.”

‘You’ll want to pray more’

Through a Vatican press release issued on Sept. 29, Pope Francis called on all the faithful throughout the world to pray the holy rosary every day during the month of October.

Bunch is on board.

“The power and beauty of the rosary is in its simplicity of form and its constant invitation to us to contemplate the Gospel, not just as a story about people who lived long ago, but rather as a visceral encounter with Christ and his Mother who leads us to him in the present—if we just ask.”

Bunch offered advice to those considering praying the rosary daily.

“I would say that one Our Father or one Hail Mary prayed with absolute sincerity is a great start,” he said. “Before you know it, you’ll want to pray more once you’ve started praying with your whole heart. You may not be praying a daily rosary by tomorrow, but if you start with sincerity and ask God for his help, you will be given the grace to continue and become someone who prays the rosary every day.”

Bunch believes that if a memento mori is included with the prayers, all the better.

“Making my own death and Christ’s death more real to me,” he said, “made the resurrection all the more real to me as well.”

(Daniel Tews is a freelance writer and a member of Annunciation Parish in Brazil.)

Local site Links: