What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of death? Is it the ubiquitous Grim Reaper, or perhaps one of the more modern depictions of death, such as the hip young goth chick in the Sandman comic series? Chances are, in some way, your mind will personify death as a person or personality that immediately produces feelings and opinions about its nature. You may see your death figure as someone you interact with, even bargain with – such as the game of dice between Life and Death in Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner - or just a silent presence whose arrival signifies an imminent transition you've always known would come. While death – and our personifications of it – don’t cause death itself, they are a harbinger, a messenger, of the inevitable.
We try to mold death into a familiar form or figure for many reasons. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung theorized that we create symbols in our minds for unfamiliar concepts or ones we cannot comprehend to make them feel more manageable. Trying to translate the idea of death into a being may also help us feel less alone as we contemplate dying. After all, if death is there too, we'll have company on one of the most unfamiliar journeys we've ever contemplated. Finally, our personifications of death are our attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible event that everyone will experience. As the great equalizer, no matter their appearance, death will visit us all.
There is solid and comprehensive academic research(1) that explores our personification of death. As it turns out, people tend to see death as one of four manifestations, and they are differentiated by the manner and sometimes the place of death. The way we personify death can give us clues to our own levels of death anxiety and provide us with a starting point to process our feelings about our own dying and the deaths of others.
Who Is Death?
The most familiar depiction of death is the Grim Reaper, a dark, hooded figure carrying a scythe, a reaper who reaps souls. Under the dark cloak, we imagine a skeletal body, such as the Death Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. In our minds, we equate this figure of death with an unexpected death, such as a car accident or even a murder. Typically, this macabre personification arrives at fatalities that occur outside the home. They are a terrible agent of a shocking and sudden transition, a “bad death.”
The Gay Deceiver, or the Seducer, is present during deaths such as heart attacks or drug overdoses. They represent a trickster who has potentially fooled their victim into making choices that have contributed to their own demise. This death "wins" the battle between life and death and can represent the tug of war between good and evil.
Another familiar representation of death is that of the Gentle Comforter, also represented as Father Time. This death figure is generally associated with peaceful deaths, such as from old age, which occur at home, perhaps even during sleep. These deaths are timely, expected, and removed from tragedy. Holding this vision of death in connection to a loved one is the least distressing way to view death and represents our understanding of a "good death."
The Automaton is a death that comes to more impersonal settings, usually medical settings such as hospitals. They visit those whose death is not unexpected and typically comes after a long illness, with the dying usually sleeping or unconscious. This death steals its victims among the whir of machines and sterilized environments. It is an unemotional, quiet figure and usually brings a painless death, one that may not be immediately noticed.
The research shows that the Grim Reaper and the Gay Deceiver are associated with higher levels of death anxiety, while the Gentle Comforter and the Automaton were associated with lower levels of death fear. Interestingly, more women than men envisioned death in these last two ways, perhaps indicating that men have higher death anxiety levels than women. When we think of our own deaths, we tend to imagine the Gentle Comforter over other figures, indicating our own wishes for a timely, expected, good death.
Looking at our own personifications of death may help us deal with our own death anxiety, fear, and even grief. For example, suppose we associate one of the more negative death personifications with the death of someone we love. In that case, we may add additional pain and complexity to our grief, somehow imagining that our loved one was visited by and accompanied by a cruel companion as they died. Releasing ourselves from negative visions and associations, or at least becoming conscious that we are making these connections, can be a way to reduce our pain and anxiety. After all, these personifications are products of our imaginations. We can disregard them if they don't bring us comfort. They result from our own natural processes intended to make sense, somehow, of what is unknowable, but they are not reality.
(1) Youngjin Kang, “Personification of Death: What Types of Death Are Personified by Macabre, Gentle Comforter, Gay Deceiver, and Automaton?” Omega – Journal of Death and Dying, 2021, 83(3) 487-507.