“What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?” That’s a line from the Discworld book called, well, Reaper Man, and it’s always stuck with me. It’s spoken by Death himself, who is a major character in the Disc books. Anthropomorphic personifications of Death are no rare thing; the idea of the Grim Reaper is a tremendously common one, in particular.
The idea of the personified Death is a broad enough one to allow for a lot of variation. Sometimes Death is cruel, sometimes they’re aloof and uncaring, and sometimes, they are very very kind. This is the case with both Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Death, and the Death of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Now, Pratchett and Gaiman are a match made in heaven, in terms of authorial compatibility. I desperately wish we’d gotten more works like Good Omens, a collaboration between the two. But sometimes it’s enough that there are similarities, such as their portrayals of Death.
Death of the Discworld is a kindhearted, well-intentioned personification. He seems to genuinely like mortals, or at the very least, is fascinated by our ways. As a being who is powered purely by belief, by the laws of the Disc, he appears as most people expect him to – a skeleton in a black cloak with a scythe. In Mort, he has adopted a human daughter, and takes on a human apprentice. Their daughter is Susan, the granddaughter of death, who has inherited some of his powers, and is implied to be his successor when he “retires”. He loves cats, which is why they have nine lives. In Reaper Man, he briefly becomes mortal himself, giving him an even greater empathy for mortals, especially when the Auditors of Reality try to replace him with a cruel, almost sadistic Death. The best is in Hogfather, when the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus is incapacitated, and Death steps up to bring holiday joy to all the little girls and boys. Of course, that is also the book where Death delivers what is, to me, the defining moment of the Discworld – “Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
Death of Sandman is also powered by human belief; technically they are not ‘personifications’ per se, they just are their functions. But, my vote is that they still fall in the same general category, so they’re fair game here. Of course, the Endless Death is just such an impossibly cool character. Where Discworld’s Death is admittedly kind of a dork, Sandman’s Death is chill and relaxed, possibly because she’s vastly older than the Disc Death. See, this Death is THE Death. When the last living thing dies, she will be the one to turn everything off and leave. The scene where Gaiman discusses this is actually quoted nearly verbatim in Reaper Man, where Disc Death meets Azrael, the death of everything. Oh yes, and this Death is portrayed as female. A kind of hip, perky goth girl in fact, which fits pretty well, I think.
So, on the surface, you’d think these Deaths are pretty different. But the thing that makes them the same is that they are the kindest, most compassionate portrayals of Death I have ever seen, in any media. They care about their duty, they care about the lives they collect. The quote at the top of this post is when Death is convincing Azrael to let him stay in his post, as the New Death does not care, whereas old Death sees the lives as an intrinsically good and valuable thing. At one point, a witch challenges him to a round of poker for a newborn baby’s life. She wins, it lives; he wins, it dies. Only thing is, he throws the game intentionally, allowing the child to live. As the Hogfather, he is able to twist the rules just enough to grant a sick little girl the gift of a future, again sparing an innocent young life.
In the first volume of Sandman, Death is seen comforting and reassuring the recently deceased, kicking her brother Dream into shape, and generally being the most soothing presence seen after a fairly harrowing story. At one point, she does complain that “Mostly they aren’t too keen to see me. They fear the sunless lands. But they enter your realm [the Dreamlands] each night without fear.” Dream acknowledges then that he is “far more terrible” than she is, which I think says something big.
Of course, a big part of these personifications’ empathy is how close they are to humanity. Disc Death, like I said, always had an affinity for mortals, adopting some and then briefly becoming one. He understands what it’s like (and to his credit, when he becomes mortal he doesn’t go all crazy like the last unicorn – “I can feel this body dying all around me” my ass). Sandman Death is explicitly stated to be mortal for one day of the year, specifically to keep in touch with mortality. And there’s one detail that could only come up in the comics medium – Death’s lettering, her speech bubbles and font, are the only ones without some significant affectation to them, the only ones that do not in some way indicate her Endlessness. Her speech bubbles (and thus, her voice) are the same as any normal human’s.
I think that modern portrayals of a kindly Death indicate a cultural shift in perspective to some extent. In the cultures where Death is more often personified as a woman, she is often a fearsome, wicked hag; in ones where Death is male, he can be violent, callous destroyers. There were certainly some non-evil deaths around the world – in Korean mythology, Death is a stern bureaucrat, who escorts all to the same Netherworld when the time comes. There are even some good ones: La Santa Muerte, or La Catrina, in Mexican culture is venerated and respected, even granting favors to her devotees.
But the idea of Death as a shepherd, as a friend, as a person, as all that rolled into one I think is something different. Disc Death points out that people are often relieved to see him, as “the other shoe has dropped”, so to speak. I think there’s something wonderfully comforting in that, as someone who has never really believed in an afterlife, to think that there may be some kindly spirit there to help me figure it out when the time comes. This has all been on my mind quite a bit these last few days, as my grandmother passed away recently. I hope she met such a compassionate, humane Death, and I hope we all do, when the time comes.