The first thing I always think of when I see Death is the scene from the first episode of Father Ted where Ted gets a tarot reading.
Unsurprisingly, Death turns up and scares Ted. Then the card appears again. Then again! Great fun. When I first started watching Father Ted, I didn’t a) get the joke about the Catholic priest going for a Tarot reading in the first place, or b) know anything at all about tarot. Didn’t matter. It was hilarious to my fourteen-year-old self.
Aaanyway, as the tarot reader helpfully explains to Ted, Death is not so much about literal death as the death of one way of life and thus the start of a new one. For me that is an optimistic and liberating message, so the traditional ‘grim reaper’ style images don’t do much for me – they look scary. I love Stephanie Law’s gorgeous phoenix in the Shadowscapes Tarot, it’s intimidating and empowering at the same time.
My favourite ‘Death’ image is probably the one below, by Anna Klaffinger. It looks so hopeful, you feel yourself approaching this gentle ‘dark angel’ with trepidation, but knowing deep down that you will be safe. Which is how I think this card should feel. It’s scary, moving into the next phase of our lives, and it’s difficult letting go of old ways, but ultimately, it’s not something we should resist. I imagine this is why Klaffinger has made her angel of death so alluring, too.
Death, from the Anna K Tarot by Anna Klaffinger
Another great depiction of Death is this one, by Robert M Place:
Death, from the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery by Robert M Place
Place writes of this card that here, Death is depicted as the goddess of the poets, who harvests the body so that the soul is free to return to the sevenfold mystery. Who knows what that sevenfold mystery is (not I!), what I liked about the card was the autumnal feeling – the last dead leaf falling from the tree in order that it can build up its winter stores and bloom again in spring. The cycle of life and death (and rebirth if you’re so inclined) is not only the great cycle which begins and ends our lives, but is a sequence that repeats over and over throughout our lives.
I love the sense that comes over me when I can feel myself moving from one self into the next; that feeling that comes once the death part has been accepted and goodbyes have been said and I feel blank and empty and ready to start anew – bringing the lessons of the past with me, but leaving behind their baggage and trappings. I really believe that without the cycle that this card represents, we’d reach the ends of our lives gaggling and babbling like lunatics, never having processed all the joys and shit and crazy times we’ve lived through. Growth is important, but without death, there would not be space for anything new.
and I do recall that my very best friends
were the ones who left me empty
and ready to be filled again
Diane Cluck, ‘Your Million Sweentnesses’