July 12, 2018


How do stories using the personification of Death help us make peace with mortality?
EC's contributing editor, Kiyomi Appleton Gaines, 
shares her thoughts on the topic in this week's article:
The first story in which I remember reading about a personified Death, and one I still love, is The Appointment in Samarra (or Samarkand). It's a very old tale, said to be from Mesopotamia, and is included in the Talmud and collections of Sufi wisdom, and is sometimes also called When Death Came to Baghdad. In it, a man sends his servant on a long journey to avoid Death, only to find that Death had expected him there, in that other place, all along. I remember feeling that there was a certain injustice in that – if only the man had stayed home! How unfair that the man's fear of dying drove him to flee straight to the place of his death. Yet, how foolish to try to run away, only to spend his final days on a long journey to a distant land, far from all that he knew and loved. That is where Death brings us in the end anyway.
The Reaper - Crane

In many old stories, Death is portrayed as a neutral, or even benevolent figure. Not frightening or evil, but someone who is just doing a job. These stories represent a way for us to make peace with mortality. Not to say that we shouldn't cling to the beauty and joy and connection presented by a life well lived, or mourn the finality of separation from our loved ones. Rather Death represents everything that is unknown, and our complete inability to return to what was before – that is to say, death, (with a little 'd') in a very literal sense, or any process of change or transition. Not bad, and maybe not good, but inevitable just the same.

Another favorite personification (and where the title of this blog comes from) is Terry Pratchett's Death. His attempts to understand, and compassion for humanity are endearing, and his matter-of-fact dealings with the business of an ended life, often comical. I'm sorry that we won't have any new stories of that particular character, yet the stories we have told, and those told about us, also present a kind of continued connection with those we leave behind. I am already eagerly looking forward to my annual viewing of The Hogfather, with a dinner of pork pies and sherry, on the eve of the winter solstice! I like to think that when Sir Terry Pratchett left, Death greeted him as a friend. May we all be so lucky!

Death in The Tale of the Three Brothers, of the Harry Potter stories, always reminds me of Death in both the Appointment in Samarra, and in the Discworld. The story of The Three Brothers is beautifully rendered in the movie. I especially love that the art is reminiscent of the sculpture and reliefs on the Passion facade of Sagrada Familia. Death will not be thwarted by pride, or swayed by love, but must ultimately be accepted, and even – just maybe – welcomed after a long and good life.
Death Tarot - Visconti Sforza

There's something about passing into the dark time of the year that makes us look back on those who came before us, and reflect on what it means to lead a life well-lived. In September, the Japanese festival of Obon was celebrated. It's a time when the ancestors are believed to return and visit their living relatives. Graves are visited and cleaned, offerings are made, and at the end of three days, beautiful paper lanterns are set afloat on a river to lead the dead back to the other world.

At the end of October and early November, of course, western tradition holds to much the same idea. We come together as a community, we tell stories of our people, general and specific, and celebrate with our loved ones. This time of year is known by people around the world and throughout history for the “thinning of the veil” between our everyday world and other world, and annually this is a time to reconnect, and to remember our dead - to tell their stories. Interestingly, it wasn't the ghosts of relatives that the ancients feared on these days, but the other things that would come across with them! Following the winter the solstice, at the end of the dark half of the year and the beginning of the return to light, the Alpine demigod Perchta would hunt down all the beasties that came across throughout the fall and winter months and drag them back from whence they came, in order to make way for the coming spring.

Death with a little 'd' is always scary and terrible, and no matter how old a person is, always feels like an injustice. Because no matter how long we have to prepare, we never feel ready for it. So we tell stories about a person in a cloak who can help guide us through; so we comfort ourselves that our loved ones are not alone on that journey, and neither will we be.

Waiting - Kepple

Much of human history has been a story about death, about those impossible transitions from one place of existence into another, about travel from one land into the next; and because we are a uniquely and irrationally hopeful species, also about new life and new beginnings. Terry Pratchett in the Hogfather says, the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. I think that's true, but blood, in our old stories, is always about death, and our first stories were. We have evidence of very early burials where bodies were covered in flowers. Putting flowers over bodies is not innate behavior to humans. What mattered, of course, were not the flowers, but the reason behind the flowers – the story being told about what had happened to those people, and what it meant.

Our stories are how we make sense of the world. When throughout so much of our history, life was brutal and short, and if we made it through the year, many of our loved ones would likely not, our stories were how we made it bearable; how we gave meaning to our experiences, and how we made sense of those things that are impossible to understand, like death.

A version of this article was originally posted
on a work of heart on October 14, 2017
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines is a contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine who writes stories and articles inspired by folklore and fairy tales. 
Find more of her writing at A Work of Heart
and follow her on Twitter @ThatKiyomi

Cover: Amanda Bergloff 

Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts about Kiyomi's article in the comments section below. We'd love to hear from you!
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AMOffenwanger said...

Very good points. When I started reading it, the first thing that sprang to mind was Terry Pratchett's Death, one of my favourite of his characters. And then you brought him up yourself!
Also, the images of "The Tale of the Three Brothers" are very much reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger's work - fairy tale shadow stories from the days of silent film. Beautiful.

Unknown said...

Very much enjoyed your article on death and Death, Kiyomi. I usually picture Death from "The Seventh Seal", i love that concept of death as a being who has a particular job to do.
Rather ironic that death itself is keeping Sir Terry Pratchett from gifting us with any further stories about Death.
I agree that giving death a form does comfort us. Perhaps it gives us that illusion that death is a being we might just be able to barter with, or at least delay the inevitable.