Skulls can smile

My grandfather recently passed away. We were quite close, and it was obvious to me that he loved and cared for people. Although a medical doctor, he was always doing things uncommon to people of his profession – fixing his old cars, building or repairing bits of things he could have easily paid others to do, and trying (unsuccessfully) to learn how to use the latest versions of the Windows operating system. I always remember him talking to his patients on the phone or heading off to visit them in their homes (he very often did house calls).

Anybody who experienced the care of Dr. Taylor was a patient for life. His manner was amazingly kind and he would always listen to their stories as well as about their physical conditions. He was wise enough to know that both are intertwined in a unique way. And though a patient might wait for hours – and HOURS –, no one complained. Why? Because they knew that he would take the same amount of time for them too.

He cared.


But life here, as we know, comes to an end eventually.

A most unlikely possession

A full and well-lived life can leave many trinkets and such. I was one of the family members enlisted to sort through his possessions. That is where it became apparent to me that different people value different things. Out of all the stuff the object that initially got my attention and continues getting my highest appreciation is a human skull. He didn’t acquire it himself but inherited it from his father who had gotten it for his anatomy studies in the 1920s while studying his medical training at Oxford.

The skull doesn’t have a jaw, but it is a fine specimen nonetheless. Its smooth and glossy surface is soft to the touch (as weird as that might sound), and it doesn’t have any creep factor to it. At least for me.

While its owner has been gone for almost a century, the skull remains a testament to how life provides us with a structure of support. We can do with it what we want, but its effects and reality in the world remain. The skull is like fossilized time.

I would love to say that this skull adorns my writing desk at this moment. It will in a couple of months, but not yet. Since it doesn’t have any paperwork, I was fairly certain that taking it on the plane would have raised eyebrows at the very least. So for now it sits, gently covered by one of my grandfather’s bath towels, in a box waiting for me to take it home and put on my desk.

I appreciate the skull not only because it belonged to my grandfather, and his father before, but because of how its actual presence in my hands makes me feel. It is, as I said before, like fossilized time. It isn’t just the representation of a person’s work, like a beautifully ornate carving or chair or other representation of a person’s effort; instead, it’s actually the representation of a human who does the creating. Or did, anyway.

I only wish that I could know who the skull belonged to. But that is lost to history. What I can know is that this person lived until midlife. And I can also know that this person had an end. Like my grandfather. Both are gone. Yet something of their life remains, as it will for all of us – whether it turns out to be of much or little worth.

A vivid reminder of mortality

To me, the skull is the crowning jewel among art creations known as vanitas works or memento mori. Essentially these are symbolic works of art which remind us of the transience of life, and the certainty of death. Perhaps you have seen some pictures of old writers, philosophers or even theologians, and might have noticed a skull sitting near wherever they did their work. This is a vanitas. When I was younger I assumed that the presence of a skull in artwork was for the purpose of knowing anatomy. I was young after all, so you can forgive me. Now I see it quite differently.

I do believe that a skull can tersely remind us of the temporality of life. No doubt having a skull staring at us eyeless could quickly help to focus our mindsets on what mattered most. However, I propose that the gaze of the skull can do more than incite fear of death – and thus the motivation needed to act a little smarter in the face of an ultimate end – it might also incite us to think about the fact that we get to live, too. As in live a worthwhile and joyous and replete life which helps to create happiness and meaningfulness in others. That’s an even bigger and more important part of life, isn’t it?

How then should I live

But back to the skull. I will quickly say that while we might begin with the importance of being mindful of our mortality and thus limit the vices that may shorten life, it’s important to move on from the things that the skull might remind us not to do and move towards the things the skull might remind us to do.

For example, while the skull might make the perfect reminder that it is important that we be mindful not only to not overindulge, it also reminds us to show hospitality to our neighbour by giving a drink when appropriate. This too is part of good living.

Likewise, the skull might remind not only that we are careful what we listen to, but that we genuinely listen to the voices of our neighbours, and also that while we should bridle our eyes from evil, we must use them to do what matters most: see others in a way that lets them know they are worthy of being seen. The skull is a tangible reminder that guarding the purity of our souls is not the sole point of living on this earth. Part of good living is knowing what we should do with this life. We have freedom, yes, but we must know what to use it for.

This reminds me that our mouths are to be employed to bless the lives of others around us, not merely to never let obscene things come out of them. The little song which was sung in Sunday school rings in my ear, “be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little ears what you hear.” This is sound and sage advice, but let us not end there.

Let us also take care that we SEE others as well and LISTEN to them too – for in that way we are living truly human lives – we are being life-giving spirits. How often would Jesus remind us that life is more about being generous to our fellow humans – to pour out our lives for the sake of others – than it is about self preservation? In fact, I recall Jesus saying something negative about those who are worried merely about saving their own lives – Jesus says that these people will lose their lives.

The double-sided beauty of this living with others in mind is that when we are living our lives for others, we ourselves are certainly made all the better for it. Should we be cautious how we live? Yes, this is veritably true, BUT that’s only half of living.

When I see the skull sitting close to the individual in the picture, I see something other than the macabre: I see the opportunity of reminding myself to enrich the lives of others. Yes, of course, I must be mindful of my mortality, but mortality is a double thing: it’s a gift too. Sure, it’s limited. But we also get it.

Great philosophers have long pondered the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” The skull suggests that the something is tangible and real. Being and existing is a beautiful thing. And the most beautiful and true things are meant to be shared with others in meaningful and rich ways. Living with this in mind gives us all a fuller life.

The time to smile is NOW and not just when there is nothing left of us but some bones and a smiling skull.

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About the Author

Matthew Steem

Matthew Steem is passionate about exploring the intellectual, imaginative and emotional vibrancy at the heart of the Christian tradition: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Matthew has written for Our Daily Bread, Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, and many more publications both online and in print. You can find more at

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