Don't Fear the Reaper: The Many Faces of Death

As with my last article, I’ll start by apologising for my long silence. The past six months have been a chaotic string of job assessments, job interviews, job rejections, illnesses, university reunions and, most recently, trying to settle into a job that consumes 45 hours of my week and makes me want to do nothing but sleep when I get home.

I had originally planned to make my next post about the presentation of mental illness in literature, but recent events and a need to further research that particular topic have put that idea on hold for a while. To start with, the seemingly never-ending string of celebrity deaths, among them respected and revered cultural icons such as David Bowie, Harper Lee and Alan Rickman, has left a morbid grey cloud hanging over 2016, which in turn got me thinking of the numerous different portrayals of death in art and culture. From a more personal perspective, back in February I lost my grandfather to cancer, and nine weeks later my grandmother, his wife of fifty years who has lived with Alzheimer’s disease for the last seven, followed suit. At twenty-four years of age, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had both of these devoted, loving, hard-working people in my life for as long as I did, and I’d almost go so far as to say it’s romantic that even in her condition, something in my grandmother’s mind told her that her husband wasn’t coming back to see her anymore and that she couldn’t go on without him, but that does little to ease the pain of losing them, especially within such a short time-span. Their notice in the papers was tiny compared to the coverage that people like Prince or Victoria Wood get when they pass away, but John and Evelyn Campbell were also talented, remarkable people in their own right; people who brought me up on stories and nursery rhymes and inspired me to become a writer, and as difficult as it may be now and in the days and months to come, I hope to eventually create something that would make them proud.

Death has been given innumerable names, faces and forms all across the varying spectrums of art, culture, religion and mythology: the Ancient Egyptians had Anubis, the jackal-headed god who weighed the hearts of the dead to determine what life they had and what afterlife they were bound for; in Christianity, death is the dreaded transition to either eternal salvation or endless damnation, often personified as angels; for the Ancient Greeks, there was Thanatos, the child of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness), an indiscriminate being feared by mortals and detested by gods; in Norse mythology, the afterlife is separated into three separate places – Valhalla for the warriors, Folkvang or the “field of the people”, and Helheim, the underworld realm ruled by the trickster god Loki’s half-dead, hag-like daughter Hel. And of course, one of the most popular depictions of death is the skeletal, black-hooded, scythe-wielding figure conceived in fourteenth-century England, better known as the Grim Reaper. It is this particular portrayal that I’ll be focusing on, due to its frequent use in art and literature.

Let’s start with perhaps one of the most well-known, best-loved depictions of death in contemporary fiction, the Death of the Discworld series by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett mayherestinpeace. While essentially depicted as the traditional scythe-wielding Grim Reaper (except when kings are involved, then he uses a sword), this Death is shown throughout the many Discworld novels to be… actually kind of a nice guy. He rides a horse called Binky, adopts an orphaned girl out of pity and creates a comfortable, albeit overly dark, home environment for her, builds a swing for his granddaughter in Soul Music, enjoys a good curry and, practically in the spirit of the Internet generation, really likes cats.

These charming traits aside, there are so many other reasons I’ve developed a soft spot for this particular representation of life’s end. One that comes immediately to mind, as someone who’s spent the last ten months leaping desperately between freelance and temp jobs and filling out applications for something more stable, is Death taking a young man under his wing (er… cloak) as an apprentice in Mort. Strange choice, I know, but for me the idea of the being that comes to all in their final moments to escort them to whatever their personal beliefs tell them comes next taking a simple country lad away from An unfulfilling future, taking him to the top of the world and beyond, and bestowing the greatest responsibility imaginable on him fills me with a sense of gratification, and a slight urge to write to every company that’s ever turned down my job applications and say “DEATH HIMSELF THOUGHT A HUMAN SCARECROW COULD HANDLE THE SOULS OF THE DYING BUT YOU LOT DON’T THINK SOMEONE WITH A MASTER’S DEGREE, A DIPLOMA AND THREE YEARS’ MEDIA EXPERIENCE IS CUT OUT FOR AN INTERNSHIP?!” Yes, that’s right, I’m so outraged by today’s job market I did the unthinkable and put a question mark and exclamation mark together. See what you’ve done to me, adulthood?
The other aspect of Discworld Death’s character that I find oddly charming is how obviously he doesn’t take any pleasure in what he does (note that I avoid saying he kills people – he is very clear that that is not the point of his existence). He takes pride in his work, certainly: he’s always courteous; he’s punctual (how good you find that is relative to your own feelings on death, I suppose); he tries to reassure those who need it or, if he’s really trying, he’ll crack a joke that’s usually as dry as his bones. In Maskerade, he’s found teaching a swan how to perform its own lament using a tuning fork. This Death is an ironically outstanding example of professionalism, especially when you consider that the last thing on most folks’ minds as they’re dying is the quality of customer service they’re getting. He even takes time off now and then, like anyone would when they feel that the stress of the job is getting to them, but in the end he always comes back to doing what he does best. There’s no reward for it, and no recognition, and in the modest handful of the Discworld series that I’ve read so far, very few characters are ever pleased to see him regardless of how well he carries out his duty (I nearly said “executes” but I figured that any pun is definitely a bad one if the creator starts mentally giving herself dirty looks for it). In a way, you’ve got to admire a character that’s been able to put up with so much since the dawn of time and is still able to take such an active interest in human nature and behaviour.

Cover Art for Mort, Book 4 in the Discworld series. Credit: Josh Kirby.

In a similar vein, we see Death as an observer and commentator on humanity in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. What’s immediately striking about this novel is that Death serves as the narrator throughout, following the story of Liesel, the young evacuee protagonist, while occasionally throwing in personal thoughts and observations on the world and the people who pass through it. As in many works of art, the question that arises from The Book Thief is how humans can be so capable of creating both immense beauty and startling ugliness – a point that’s undoubtedly made more poignant by the novel’s setting in Second World War Germany and the struggles of its withered and well-meaning citizens. While differing from the Discworld’s Death by clarifying that he does not in fact carry a scythe despite the traditional depiction of a hooded skeleton in the cover art, there is still a clear idea of professionalism and a job needing to be done, and much like Pratchett’s incarnation, this Death is evidently not indifferent to the ways and worries of the world and its inhabitants. What’s also interesting is how The Book Thief’s Death describes his job as being a series of commissions by human “bosses”, with Hitler being the outstanding example in this narrative, as it adds an element of reluctance and resentment to what is so often perceived as an unfeeling, uncaring being.

The question I so often find myself asking when I read books, watch films or look at paintings that show Death as a sentient (I hesitate to use the term “living”) entity is: why do we insist on anthropomorphising the end of life? Is there a general consensus that by putting a face on it, Death becomes less daunting? If that were the case, why do so many go for a skeleton? Surely there are far more comforting forms that we could conceive for our final moments, like a unicorn, or a huge cup of tea or Tom Hiddleston in a really huggable cardigan… Sorry, what was I saying? I suppose that’s what fascinates me about Terry Pratchett’s presentation of Death; he kept the traditional cape-and-scythe aesthetic, but added a personality to it, and that really makes a world of difference.

Another theory I have on the personification of death is that by giving it some kind of tangible form, we have a focal point on which to project all the emotions brought on by the loss of a loved or admired person. If Death has a solid form, particularly something as less-than-completely human as a skeleton, we have something at which we can look and say, “It’s your fault I’m in pain. You are the reason I feel like my world has fallen away from under my feet.” And maybe to some extent that can be therapeutic; I can certainly see it as being more therapeutic than the simple thought that someone we love is gone and never coming back and there’s no apparent reason for it, because it reminds us of how ultimately powerless we all are. Having said that, I doubt that I would feel particularly confident if I squared up to a face with no eyes or skin and said, “Right, mate, it’s time we had a chat about John Keats and Janis Joplin…”

Someone else who seems to have similar questions and has gone the extra mile by designing his own incarnation is ever-imaginative fantasy genius Neil Gaiman. In his cult comic series Sandman, Death is the Ankh pendant and eyeliner-wearing sister of Dream, the Sandman himself. When describing his unusual take on the personification of Death – not just as a human, but as a female, no less – Gaiman explains why he thought it was time to bring Death to life (I swear to you these puns are not intentional) in a new form:

“People are used to the idea of Death with a sickle and a cape. I wanted to do a Death that would challenge people’s conception. I wanted to do the kind of Death that I would want to meet when I die… She’s sensible, not naïve, but innocent. She has the innocence of one who has been there and done that and come out the other side. It’s almost a sort of holy innocence. She’s the kind of person you’d like to meet and spend a day with.”

This is where I feel that Gaiman has gone where most writers haven’t quite managed to go with this particular concept. He has turned the image of Death completely on its head and come out with a kooky, down-to-earth Girl-Death that even those who hold the greatest fear of the end would have a hard time feeling frightened of. Much like Zusak’s Death, however, Gaiman’s Death is also interested in the mortal world and its inner workings, but rather than simply observing, this Death manifests herself as a human and immerses herself in daily human life, enjoying food, parties and Disney films among other things. And this brings me back to the point I was tentatively poking at above. Throughout history, we have felt a lingering need to put a face to the final moments of our lives; with mythology; with religion; with literature, with music and with visual arts. If this trend stems from ancient beliefs that Death does not signify the end, but a transition into another form of existence such as the afterlife or reincarnation, then it makes a certain amount of sense that there be a guiding figure there to bridge the gap between Life and Insert-Sequel-Here, and to escort our immortal souls into the next stage of our eternal journey.

Death, sister of Dream in Sandman. Credit: Neil Gaiman/Mike Dringenberg.

On that note, I come to my final example of Death as a physical being, and in this case it becomes beings. Veering away from books to the big screen, I want to look at the presentation of death in the 2014 animated film The Book of Life, directed by Jorge Gutierrez and co-produced by silver-screen legend Guillermo del Toro. In a film that celebrates the spectacle of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the story focuses on a wager between two spirits: La Muerte, the beautiful overseer of the Land of the Remembered, an afterlife realm where every day is a fiesta full of colour and light and everyone’s face has an awesome sugar-skull design on it, and Xibalba, the scheming ruler of the dreaded Land of the Forgotten, where souls who have no one to remember them slowly fade into nothingness. The wager is simple: two boys, Manolo and Joaquin, are in love with the same girl, María, and so La Muerte and Xibalba bet on which boy will succeed in winning her heart, with the rulership of the Land of the Remembered as the grand prize. While these two characters are not directly responsible for claiming the souls of the deceased, although Xibalba does attempt to cheat in the wager by interfering with the lives of the protagonists, they are similar to the representations of Death that I’ve mentioned already in their interest in the mortal world. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that their use of human beings as subjects for a bet is reminiscent of the gods of Ancient Greek mythology. The main point that stands out for me in The Book of Life, however is this: that the pain of death can be overcome by remembering the good times we’ve shared with the people we’ve lost, and that we should celebrate the life they lived and the time we had with them, and the fact that this is in a film targeted towards younger viewers borders on the revolutionary. When I was a kid, I saw death in films in the traumatising forms of King Mufasa and Bambi’s mother, and now in The Book of Life we have an afterlife that can be one big party if our loved ones spare a thought for us every now and then. Even with the presence of Xibalba and the Land of the Forgotten, this film makes it pretty damn difficult to fear the end and whatever may come afterwards.

A match made in... the Ancient Aztec equivalent of Heaven, maybe? Xibalba and La Muerte in The Book of Life. Credit: 20th Century Fox.

As with most of the topics I’ve covered so far and wish to cover in the future, I could go on listing examples and providing my own speculations for days on end, but as with life itself, blog articles must also come to an end eventually. Whether Death turns out to be a teenage girl with an Ankh necklace, a skeleton with a soft spot for curry and cats, a crimson-clad lady with sugar-skull make-up and candles on her hat, or nothing but the closing of our eyes and the stilling of our hearts, the only way we’ll finally know the truth is when it’s too late to tell, so maybe we shouldn’t worry about it so much. Sure, that does nothing to dispel the pain of seeing the last page turn on a fifty-year love story, or to lessen the shock we feel when we see that our childhood heroes aren’t as invincible as we always believed, but if there’s any chance that Death greeted them with a reassuring smile and a kind word or two, and will one day do the same for those of us left behind, then maybe we could bring ourselves to forgive Death for just doing their job.

References and Further Reading:

Campbell, The Art of Neil Gaiman (ILEX, 2014).
Gaiman, Sandman (DC Comics, 1993).
Gutierrez, The Book of Life (20th Century Fox, 2014).
Pratchett, The Discworld Series (Transworld Publishers, 1983 – 2015).
Zusak, The Book Thief (Transworld Publishers, 2007).

Emma McMullan's Picture

Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.