Marcus Aurelius Bust
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Death as a Character in Popular Culture
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy”
The 1960 gospel blues song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, composed and first recorded by Blind Gary Davis, portrays death as an inevitable and periodic visitor. According to the musicologist David Malvinni, it “”presents a terrifying personification of the instant, the sudden possibility [of] death at any moment that could have come from the medieval era’s confrontation with the plague”.
The 1984 extreme metal song “Creeping Death”, recorded by Metallica, references the angel of death, among other religious symbols. It is described by the writer Tom King as ” a tale of righteous Biblical rage and devastation straight out of the Book of Revelations”.
Death is a fictional character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and depicted as one of many Deaths. His jurisdiction is specifically the Discworld itself; he is only a part, or minion, of Azrael, the universal Death. Death has appeared in every Discworld novel, with the exception of The Wee Free Men and Snuff. Mort, published in 1987, is the first time Death appears as a leading character.
Death (The Book Thief)
Death is the narrator of Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel The Book Thief. As the collector of souls, he tells the coming of age story about a young girl in Nazi Germany and World War II.
Death (Harry Potter)
Death appears in “The Tale of Three Brothers in J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of fairytales featured in her Harry Potter series. Three brothers avoid Death and Death, furious at being avoided, offers the brothers gifts. Two of these gifts, the Elder Wand and the Resurrection Stone lead to the first two brothers’ deaths. The third brother, gifted with the Invisibility Cloak avoids Death until old age, where he then goes with Death like an old friend. These gifts became the Deathly Hallows.
Death (Incarnations of Immortality)
Death is a held office in Piers Anthony’s 1983 novel On a Pale Horse. The character Zane becomes Death after a failed suicide attempt that ends up killing the previous Death. He is taught by his fellow Incarnations Time and Fate and must defeat the Incarnation of Evil, Satan. He is given several items to aid him on his job, including a watch to stop local time, jewels to measure how much good and evil is in a person for judgment, and his pale horse Mortis, who often takes the form of a pale car. Zane as Death appears in Anthony’s following novels, notably Bearing an Hourglass.
Charlie Asher (A Dirty Job)
Death is a career in Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job. Charlie Asher is chosen to be a “Death Merchant” for retrieving souls and protect them from dark forces while managing his story and raising his newborn daughter.
Death (DC Comics)
Death first appeared in The Sandman vol. 2, #8 (August 1989), and was created by Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg. She is both an embodiment of death and a psychopomp in The Sandman Universe, and depicted as a down-to-earth, perky, and nurturing figure. Death is the second born of The Endless and she states “When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.”
Death also appears briefly in Fables #11 (May 2003) titled “Bag O’ Bones”, where Jack Horner traps Death in a magical bag that never gets full. There has been no indication as to whether Fables has any connection to the Sandman universe.
Death (Marvel Comics)
The character first appeared in Captain Marvel #26 (Jun. 1973) and was created by Mike Friedrich and Jim Starlin. Death is an abstract entity, the embodiment of the end of life in the Marvel Universe, and resides inside a pocket dimension known as the Realm of Death. The character can change appearance at will shown in a storyline of Captain Marvel where Thanos’ scheme to conquer the universe, as the character becomes determined to prove his love for Death by destroying all life.
Lady MacDeath (Bug-a-Boo)
Lady MacDeath is a Grim Reaper, the personification of Death who is responsible of going after all people whose time to die has come, although, unlike a typical Grim Reaper, her body is not pictured as made of bones. She uses her sickle to kill people, by hitting them in the head, and then she takes their souls to the purgatory, for them to be judged and sent whether to hell or heaven (sometimes after much bureaucracy). She always carries a list with the name of the people she must kill on the day. Most of her stories feature a pursuit, sometimes punctuated with struggles faced every day by normal people. Maurício de Souza says that the purpose of creating her is “”taking death less seriously, while it doesn’t come to us””.
Destiny is a 1921 silent German Expressionist fantasy romance film directed by Fritz Lang and inspired by the Indian folktale of Savitri. The film follows a woman desperate to reunite with her dead lover. It also follows three other tragic romances, set in a Middle Eastern city; in Venice, Italy; and in the Chinese Empire. Death, tired of collecting souls, strikes a deal with a young woman whose lover has suddenly died. The deal is that a soul must be found to replace the dead man’s soul, and then the lovers can be reunited.
Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
After years of questioning why people fear him, Death takes on human form for three days so that he can mingle among mortals and find an answer. He finds a host in Duke Lambert after revealing himself and his intentions to the Duke and takes up temporary residence in the Duke’s villa. However, events soon spiral out of control as Death falls in love with the beautiful young Grazia. As he does so, Duke Lambert, the father of Grazia’s mortal lover Corrado, begs him to give Grazia up and leave her among the living. Death must decide whether to seek his own happiness or sacrifice it so that Grazia may live.
The 1998 American film Meet Joe Black is loosely based on the 1934 film. While on Earth, Death, living under the name Joe Black, enlists the wealthy Bill Parrish to be his guide to mortal life, and in exchange guarantees that Bill will not die as long as he serves as “Joe’s” guide. Joe falls in love with Bill’s youngest daughter, Susan, a resident in internal medicine, and learns the meaning of both friendship and love.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Death is one of the main characters in the 1957 Swedish historical fantasy film The Seventh Seal. The film tells the story of a knight encountering Death, whom he challenges to a chess match, believing he can survive as long as the game continues.
These scenes are parodied in the 1991 comedy film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which the title characters repeatedly beat Death playing a variety of family board games such as Battleships and Twister. Death goes on to accompany Bill and Ted for the remainder of the film as major supporting characters.
The Cremator (1969)
Helena Anýzová portrays Death in this cult classic of the Czech new wave. She never speaks during the film but always appears in the background in scenes where the main character Kopfrkingl is grappling with his conscience or immediately before and after he murders one of his family members. Kopfrkingl always gets angry when he sees her as if he understands that his actions will cause only pain but he tries to suppress this. Death is seen chasing after Kopfrkingl’s car as he is on his way to run the Nazi death camps right before the closing shot of the film.
Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (1983)
John Cleese plays the role of The Grim Reaper in this British musical sketch comedy film, leading cocktail party guests away to their deaths after they have consumed gone-off salmon mousse for dinner.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Throughout the film, Munchausen is pursued by Death, a skeletal angel with raven’s wings, carrying a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other. In the end, Death, in the form of a grim physician, extracts Munchausen’s glowing life force, and Munchausen is given a lavish funeral before boldly claiming it was “one of the many times I faced Death.”
Final Destination film series (2000–2011)
In each of the Final Destination films, a group of protagonists escapes a disaster in which many innocent people are killed. Their escapes alter the design intended by Death, which, while never portrayed as a physical entity, is instead described as an omniscient supernatural consciousness. In each film, the characters learn that they are doomed to be killed and that Death will follow them, leading them each into misadventure until they eventually die.
In 1987 Australia produced a Grim Reaper commercial to raise public awareness about the danger of HIV/AIDS.
In the British children’s sketch television show Horrible Histories, Death (portrayed by Simon Farnaby) is a reoccurring character who appears in the segment, Stupid Deaths and later in its 6th series, Chatty Deaths.
The personification of Death appears many times in many different games, especially Castlevania and The Sims. Nearly all iterations of a “Death” or “Grim Reaper” character feature most of the same characteristics seen in other media and pop culture: a skeleton wearing a cloak and wielding a scythe.
Understanding Death Symbols: Origins and Meanings
Easily Recognize Death Symbol in Most Cultures
There are certain symbols that are so commonplace; they are easily recognized as death symbols. These symbols don’t need an explanation of why they are considered symbols of death, while others may be more obscure.
In Irish mythology, the banshee female spirit appears as a death omen. The banshee has an ear-piercing screech that announces death.
The dagger is an antiquated symbol of death and mostly obsolete. A dagger was set before or after a person’s name to indicate the individual was deceased.
The grim reaper is a foreboding figure. This dark hooded figure carries a scythe and is the personification of death.
The enduring remains of human life are the skull. This is a worldwide recognized symbol of death.
The scythe is the death tool of the Grim Reaper. A sickle is sometimes used in place of the scythe.
The skeleton is all that’s left of the human body. Like the skull, the skeleton is a symbol of death.
Human skeleton anatomical death
Skull and Crossbones
The skull and crossbones are late Middle Ages death symbols. This symbol was commandeered by pirates and used on bottles of poison.
Symbols of Death-Related to Time
Time is often used as a symbol of death. It often seems that each person has a specific amount of time to be in this life and when that time runs out, nothing can prevent death.
The clock is easily identified as a symbol of death. The limit of time constraints is marked by the ticking of a clock.
The hourglass is one of the most recognizable time-related symbols of death. The grains of sand in an hourglass turned upside down eventually run out, symbolizing death.
Flowing hourglass on wooden table
The ancient sundial is one of the symbols of death. The marker of time by the morning sunrise, but nightfall is a perfect symbol of the darkness of death.
What Symbolizes Death of a Loved One
There are many symbols that people associated with the death of a loved one. The color of funeral wear is one of the most commonly associated death symbols.
In the Western world, black is the color of mourning. It is the color of funeral wear.
In Eastern regions of Asia, white is the color of mourning. It is reserved as the color of death.
In South Africa, red is the color of mourning. It represents the Apartheid era of bloodshed.
Purple or Gray
During the Victorian Era, purple and gray were second mourning colors. These were worn for specific periods.
Animals That Are Symbols of Death
There are certain animals that are considered symbols of death. Some of these animals are also omens of evil.
Bats are the symbol of birth, death, and rebirth. They are associated with Vampire mythology.
The superstition of a black cat crossing your path states it is bad luck or even an omen of impending death. A black cat found sitting on a bed of an ill person is a symbol the person will soon die.
Other cats are often viewed as death symbols. Not surprisingly, throughout history, the cat has been a symbol of death.
The black color of the crow makes it ominous. Its disturbing caw and diet of decaying flesh make the crow a death symbol.
A moth is a powerful symbol of death. When a moth is found in the house of a sick person, it forebodes imminent death.
The owl is a symbol of death in many cultures. It is also a messenger from the dead, and some cultures believe it can carry the dead to heaven.
Ram or Goat Head
The ram or goat head is a powerful symbol of death. The Baphomet, a symbol of the church of Satan, is often portrayed with horns.
Ram in Islam
In Islam, a black and white goat is the symbol of death. This is especially powerful since the goat is sacrificed.
When the raven appears after a bloody battle, it is viewed as a symbol of death. The raven is featured in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, and is a death omen and symbol of evil and loss.
Another bird symbol of death, vultures circle above the dying. They are also scavengers that eat decayed carcasses.
Religious Symbols of Death
Most religions have symbols of death. Some of the symbols also serve as symbols of hope.
Candles in churches and funeral services are lit for remembrance of the dead. Candles are also traditional symbols for funeral services.
The crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ, and his resurrection is symbolized with the cross. While the cross is associated with this event, it is also a symbol of hope and the promise of everlasting life.
In Buddhism, the wheel is a symbol of death. It is also a symbol of the cycle of life and death and reincarnation.
Burial Related Symbols of Death
The symbols of death are found in cemeteries and other places the dead are interred. There are other symbols of how a body is treated for the funeral, such as cremation.
Winged angels are often believed to be messengers of death. Some people believe angels carry the souls of the deceased to heaven. Angels are often used as statues for graves, crypts, and tombs.
A cemetery is a resting place for the dead. It is an appropriate symbol of death.
The coffin shape is quickly identified with death. This symbol is used for various reasons, often as a Halloween motif.
The cremated remains are typically stored in an urn. This is instantly recognized as a symbol of death.
A grave marker is recognized as a symbol of death. These are also often used as a Halloween motif.
The pyramids are believed to be elaborate tombs for the Pharaohs. These amazing ancient architectural buildings remain symbols of death.
A sarcophagus is an Egyptian form of a coffin. It was made of stone and the popular burial device of the Pharaohs.
A tombstone is another grave marker. It is a universal symbol of death.
Plants That Are Symbols of Death
There are many plants, such as flowers and trees, that are symbols of death. These are often used in funerals and as cemetery ornamentation.
Chrysanthemums are one of the flowers associated with death. Widely used in Western funerals, chrysanthemums are another favored funeral flower.
The cypress tree is a popular tree planted in cemeteries. It’s the tree’s roots that make it a popular choice since they won’t grow around buried caskets.
Hyacinth is another favored funeral flower. It is often used in funeral wreaths and arrangements.
A popular funeral flower, lilies are used in floral arrangements. The Easter lily is associated with the resurrection of Christ and often chosen for funeral flowers.
Red poppies were first worn in remembrance of those who died in World War I. The red poppy quickly became a symbol of death.
Understanding Death Symbols and Their Meanings
There are many death symbols throughout the world. When you understand the various meanings of death symbols, you can decide if you wish to use one.