Death is incredibly difficult for many of us to cope with. The loss of a loved one an indescribable agony. Contemplation of our own mortality often simultaneously incomprehensible and terrifying. For centuries, mankind has searched for a means to make sense of the end of life. The grim reaper, or the Angel of Death as he is sometimes called, provides us with a tangible creature to embody the confounding concept of death.
Yet, this entity is more than just a psychological coping mechanism: it is a being which has permeated folklore and beliefs across time and space. In some cases, there are even people who claim to have encountered the grim reaper themselves.
The Traditional Grim Reaper
The most common imagery associated with the grim reaper is that of a figure dressed in a long, black cloak holding a scythe. A skeletal creature, the traditional grim reaper is death, able to cut down human life with his scythe as easily as he would harvest wheat.
This ominous symbol of death can be traced back to fourteenth century Eurasia, and one of the darkest periods in human history – the Black Death. The inexorable plague swept across the land, leaving piles of bodies in its wake. Whilst estimates of the death toll range wildly, some historians have suggested that as many as sixty percent of Europe’s total population fell to the sickness. 1
At a time of great misery, it was perhaps inevitable that death was personified in art and literature as a figure of terror. Swathed in black, the grim reaper lurked in the shadows, waiting to reap his next, unsuspecting, victim. At the time of the Great Plague, Death reigned as king.
All peoples across Europe acknowledged and even drew inspiration from the overlordship of death. The Danse Macabre artistic movement was born in the centuries which followed. People from all classes would dance together with skeletal figures off to the afterlife in paintings, woodcuts and plays.
Contemporary poetry, including this verse which was directed at the Holy Roman Emperor, reinforced the reality that all will be reaped by death in time.
Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance
The skeletal grim reaper was the great equaliser of medieval society.
Danse macabre in Medieval art
The Angel of Death
Looking beyond the traditional grim reaper figure, not all entities associated with death are quite as ominous. Some are merely performing a necessary task.
According to texts of the Abrahamic religions, one of the the angels of death is Azrael. Azrael is considered to be an angel of great and noble power, chosen by God to command many lesser-ranking angels tasked with pulling souls out of bodies and transporting them through the the journey of the afterlife. Far from having the power to cease life at will, Azrael is described as carrying out God’s instructions by being the master of Death – an immense and terrible beast which God created.
“When Death was created by God, he, on account of his terrible power, had to be put in 70,000 chains of a thousand years’ journey’s length each, and behind millions of barriers. When Azrael was placed in charge of him and saw him, he called the angels to look at him, and when he, at God’s command, spread his wings over him and opened all his eyes, the angels fainted away and remained unconscious for a thousand years. Azrael was given all the powers of the heavens to enable him to master Death.” 2
According to religious literature, “all the powers of the heavens” made Azrael himself fearsome to behold. The angel of death is described as having 70,000 feet and 4,000 wings. His body is said to be covered with eyes and tongues the same number as there are living beings on earth. When a living being dies, the corresponding eye bulges – plucked out by God’s will. 3
As the master of death, Azrael is said to know the time of every person’s demise. Forty days before death, a leaf falls from the tree of life, under the throne of God. The leaf comes to rest in the lap of Azrael, granting him knowledge of coming death. The angel is described as “forever writing in a large book and forever erasing what he writes: what he writes is the birth of man, what he erases is the name of the man at death.” 4
Death appearing as an angelic beings “are frequent experiences for those who are dying”, according to retired American hospice nurse Trudy Harris. After years of experience working with the terminally ill, Harris found certain similarities amongst deathbed visitations.
“The angels were always described as more beautiful than they had ever imagined, eight feet tall, male, and wearing a white for which there was no word. “Luminescent” is what each one said like nothing they had ever seen before.” 5
Research into deathbed visions has found that nearly seventy-six percent of patients studied at a hospital died within ten minutes of their experience. The remaining percentage died within hours. 6 One case of a visitation occurring immediately before death reported by nurses involved a girl aged ten, who died of pneumonia.
“The mother saw that her child seemed to be sinking and called us [nurses]. She said that the child had told her she had just seen an angel who had taken her by the hand – and she was gone, died immediately. That just astounded us because there was no sign of imminent death. She was so calm, serene – and so close to death! We were all concerned.” 7
Serenity during a visitation is not uncommon, even if the person is only moments away from passing away. Angel visitations can be as simple as someone pointing to a corner in the room and saying, “There is an angel”, before their demise. Equally, visitations can be more elaborate, with there being reports of angelic choirs performing a symphony for the dying, as well as beautiful visions of Heaven, as the angel shows them everything to come. These visions can last more than an hour. 8
Psychopomps: the guide of souls
Abrahamic angels of death like Azrael can be described as psychopomps, a word which in its original Greek form literally means “guide of souls”. It is their purpose to collect newly deceased souls and help them reach the afterlife – generally speaking, these entities make no decision regarding who should die or when.
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Psychopomps appear in many different cultures.
The afterlife and its guides in the Ancient world
In the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, it is Anubis, the jackal-headed God, who served many as their psychopomp to the afterlife. As “The Guardian of the Scales”, it was his job to oversee the weighing of the heart ceremony, which measured if the deceased person he was transporting was worthy enough to live an eternal life.
In Ancient Greece the psychopomp took on a more terrifying aspect in the form of the god Charon. Two coins were required as payment to this unkempt and powerful god, who would mercilessly leave penniless souls to wither on the shores of the river Styx for one hundred years. For those that could pay his price, he would allow them on his boat and ferry them across the river Styx, from the world of the living to the dead. 9
Inuit mythology and the guide of the soul
In Inuit mythology the guide of souls is called Anguta. According to some tales, he is the ultimate creator god. In others, he is merely a mortal widower. However, the stories do agree that Anguta’s function is to guide the souls of the newly deceased from the world of the living to Adlivun, a transitory realm where the dead prepare for their ascent to the ultimate paradise on the moon.
If the person has many sins to account for, Anguta serves an additional purpose – punishment. He is said to repeatedly hit their genitalia for however long is necessary for them to repent. According to mythology, this brutal process could take years. 10
Psychopomps in Chinese folklore
According to Chinese folk religion, there are two entities tasked with escorting souls to the realm of the dead. These twin death deities are depicted as dressing in black and white respectively – it is for this reason that their joint title, Heibai Wuchang, translates into English as “Black and White Impermanence”.
Individually, the White Guard is known as Xie Bi’an (謝必安; 谢必安) and the Black Guard as Fan Wujiu (范無救; 范无救). The colours with which they are associated symbolise their functions: “Bi’an” literally means “definitely at peace” while “Wujiu” literally means “cannot be helped”. Depending upon how the deceased person lived their life, will determine which of these two psychopomps arrive to guide their soul to the Underworld.
Filipino ancestral spirits
In pre-colonial and present-day Filipino culture, ancestral spirits function as guides of souls. It is said that when the dying, on their deathbed, call out to specific dead person (such as their deceased parents) their spirits become visible to the dying. Traditionally, the spirits wait at the foot of the deathbed, so that when death comes they are ready to escort the soul of their loved one into the afterlife. The departing soul is delivered to the land of dead by boat, where they are greeted by other deceased relatives. 11
The idea of loved ones easing the passage to the realm of the dead is frequently reported across many cultures.
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Ginny Chappelear, a senior coordinator of bereavement services at the Tidewell Hospice in Sarasota, Florida, has overwith over twenty years’ experience of end of life care. During an interview, she described deathbed visitations as being “so common I don’t think much about them any more.” Indeed, staff at the hospice have got into the habit of referring to such experiences as the “Gathering of Spirits”.
One of Chappelear’s earliest experiences of a “Gathering of Spirits” occurred whilst she was caring for a lady who was dying at home.
“About five days before her death, she reported seeing a man looking in the window. This was out in the country and we were concerned that it was a peeping Tom. But when the man came back, she told us that it was her brother who had died many years earlier. ‘He’s just waiting for me,’ she said. ‘I’ll go with him the next time he comes.’”
According to Chappelear, these visitations make the dying process much easier – for both the dying and the bereaved.12
Scientific study of deathbed visitations
Such deathbed visitations are much more common than sightings of angelic beings, or indeed the traditional hooded Grim Reaper. Anecdotes of deathbed visions of deceased loved ones have appeared in literature and biographies for centuries, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the topic became the subject of scientific scrutiny.
In 1977, Dr. Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research published a book titled, At the Hour of Death. During his research in the years previous, he examined thousands of case studies and interviewed more than 1,000 doctors and nurses. After analysis of these testimonies, Osis was able to identify various consistencies found in deathbed visitations that are not easily explained.
Far from reporting an array of awe-inspiring mythical beings, dying people generally reported being visited by people that they knew who had passed away – deceased family members and friends. These familiar people were described in believable terms, with the experiencers still aware of their real surroundings and conditions. From the perspective of medical professionals, they appeared lucid, and did not seem to be hallucinating or in an altered state of consciousness. Most compelling, however, was how Osis observed that pre-exisiting beliefs were irrelevant: whether or not the dying person believed in an afterlife, the experience and reactions were the same. 13
Whilst Grim Reapers have been portrayed as a multitude of fantastical and fearsome creatures in folklore, real life cases of the dying being visited at the moment of death are overwhelming personal in nature. Friends and family who have predeceased the dying person are often described as being present, to fulfil the function of a psychopomp – a guide to the afterlife. These soothing encounters couldn’t be more different from the imaginings which led to the creation of the hooded Grim Reaper of our medieval past.
Until we ourselves are faced with a death reaper, however, we are forced to be left pondering that great and final mystery. In the final words of one dying man, who told his daughter that there was a loved one standing right there with her hands on his shoulders: “You can’t see them, but some day you’ll understand what it is like.” 14
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