We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Terminator

"All but Death, can be Adjusted—
Dynasties repaired—
Systems—settled in their Sockets—
Wastes of Lives—resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs—
Death—unto itself—Exception—
Is exempt from Change—
-Emily Dickenson

What does that card image say to you? Hi, I'm Death, right? It's all there, the human skeleton, the scythe, cutting a swath through the remnants of human affairs. The lives of noble and peasant alike laid waste: the artist, the scholar, the kings and queens, the laborer, all meet the same end. The great equalizer: Death. Is there anything in this image suggesting rebirth? Fun things on their way? I don't see it, do you? Call me a party pooper, but Death means end, finale, termination. "Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." This card is from the Classic Tarot deck, a reproduction of a Milanese deck, dated 1835, but it's a very typical, historically accurate portrayal of death symbolism in art since the early Middle Ages.

So why do so many tarot readers insist this card does not mean what it clearly portrays? That look of terror in a client's eyes in the middle of a reading is one reason. Nothing can cast a pall over a for-entertainment-purposes-only tarot reading faster than having Joe Black make an appearance. Readers are quick to say, "Oh no, Death doesn't mean literal death, it's symbolic, you see, calm down...have a mint." Soft-peddling death is a natural reaction. We don't like death. It's unpleasant. It hurts. It's scary. However, no matter how you candycoat it, death represents an end. True, that end doesn't have to be the literal end to someone's life, but it certainly means an end to an aspect of someone's life, be it a relationship, a career, a phase or way of life. It's an ending that cannot be resisted, it's going to happen, like it or not, and the attending grief likewise cannot be avoided.

Much as we'd like this card to represent transition, I don't believe it does. Sure, the potential is always there for new things to come to fill the empty space left by death, but this card isn't talking about that, not yet. First, we must sit with the emptiness, grieve the loss, and accept it. Generally, we don't like to do that, in our own life or with others experiencing loss. The tendency is to rush through the painful to get to the other side. Get over it. That's understandable, but unproductive. If there's one thing I've learned about grief is that it will haunt you until you face it. It dogs your every step until you finally sit down and just weep and wail and hurt. Then and only then are we free to move on past the loss and begin again. That's precisely the time period this card is portraying. Right there in the hollowness of those skeletal eye sockets is the emptiness we feel in the wake of losing something, or someone, significant to us. Death invites us to wait, to sit a while in that place, let it wash over and through us because denying it is as useless as thinking we can outrun Death at the end of our lives, too.


  1. Oh so true, Sophia!

    Life is all about beginnings and endings, including the biggest ones, birth and death. In this culture we are okay with birth, for the most part, but suck at doing death. We don't want to face it, we don't want to deal. So we don't. I've been drawing some of the same conclusions reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that have through tarot. Cool. Also in the physical anthro lab I'm teaching this summer I handle human bones M-Th. Very sobering. If I let it be - it becomes a very spiritual thing.

  2. I think a lot of what used to serve as touchpoints for us in the whole death thing are now replaced by others who take the process out of our hands. Nursing homes, hospitals, morgues, funeral homes, etc. all provide services that remove us from what used to be a very intimate process. Some traditions still do hands-on preparation for burial, but the larger majority of us "make arrangements." I wonder if that doesn't short-circuit the grief process somehow or prolong it or something. And combine that with everyone telling the bereaved, "Chin up, your loved one would want you to be happy, not sad, there, there...you still have a life to live" essentially rushing the mourner through his/her grief because *they* are not comfortable sitting with sorrow too long, well, it just doesn't seem healthy to me. And we also tell ourselves we're being stupid, silly, foolish, or self-indulgent when we find ourselves grieving other "deaths" in our lives, losses that don't require a funeral, per se, but which nonetheless seem to require a period of mourning. The Death card seems to show up when we're trying to avoid that and need to face up to the loss, feel it, spend time with it, so we can move on.

    So yeah, you know...if elephants know to do it, you know, handle the bones of the deceased and caress them before laying them to rest, what you are doing in that lab would be at least as solemn as well. It's when we detach for efficiency's sake that we put aside our humanness and lose something precious in the process.

  3. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I've always agreed with you about the death card. Some things are final. Sometimes something dies and it may be replaced with something else (or it may not), but it's not a transition into something else. It's a death and then there's something else--or not.

    What kind of service do we give people if we ignore that painful events will happen in their lives? Sitting with them in their grief is far more caring than pretending it's a transition into something better.

    Once a friend said to me, "Everything always turns out fine in the end." I just said, "No, it doesn't. Sometimes things turn out badly and that's the way it ends." Death isn't sexy like the Devil. It's just final.

  4. Everything is a learning experience, 'tis true, but some things you just can't and probably shouldn't try to "pretty up." I was shocked to see how far removed we've become from death in our culture when my grandmother gave me my great-grandmother's scrapbook and there were photos of a dead child lying in a cot in someone's front room, flowers all around, a traditional "wake." Wakes were at home. Photos weren't as commonplace as they are today, so it may have been the only photo the family had of the child. I've read that the flowers in abundance helped to mask the odor of decomposition, especially during summer months. That was some stark imagery there. A photo in a scrapbook...of death. How does one gloss over the loss of a child? Do you say the child has merely "changed?" No, the child is gone, and a part of you dies with them, also a "death" more in the "changed" sense than literal since you still breathe.

    You're right, Carol. Death isn't sexy. There are other cards for transformative experiences...Judgement/Aeon comes to mind here. Death occupies that place where things just stop.


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