From the 15th-century, one of the first Tarot Death figures (from the Visconti-Sforza trionfi pack) beckons you to dance with him. Of course, eventually, every single person reading this will accept Death's offer—which is more like an obligation really. So fearful do people find this fact of life—that they are going to die—Tarot Death is regularly robbed of its meaning by modern card readers, afraid clients might run off if they are told things like Death is death and death is real. The truth is Death is one of the most interesting cards in the deck—and not just because it is frightening.

CIA Fact*: About 59 million people die every year all over the world. Did you get that? 59 million! Yet, you mourn a few here and there, people whose death-forms rate mentions on the news, and formulaic grief in the pews, or maybe even a personal sense of loss if you held the corpse's life dear for some reason. Respecting that, how foolish is it to imagine that one drop of selfish water, compared to the 59-million-corpse tank, should rate any of your precious, fleeting, time and attention? But scientists now tell us that since we evolved to live in and care about small groups of people, that's about all we can work up an honest feeling for. When big Death happens—and 59 million does seem pretty large—it's mainly a nameless, faceless, and quite transient, news story. Or, as is the case with the yearly death toll of humans, no story at all.
*—2017 NOTE: this information has been updated.

And yet, Tarot has a whole card, one of the big (trump) cards too, devoted to this truly occult subject.


And what are you supposed to care or do about it?

Is Death a name-tag, an indicator of something (say in a reading), or just a metaphor? More to the point, what are you supposed to tell people who get the Death card in a reading? That they're going to die? Or would that be bad for business—I mean in more ways than that their demise would make their paying for future readings problematic?

If you were to meet 1000 people at random, and say to each one, each one for whom you had drawn a Death card—"no matter, you shall live!"—you would likely see every one of those people survive your reading and walk out of your presence alive and kicking. The Death card would not have killed them. Nor even if you had said to each one—"You're doomed!"—would they likely keel over right in front of you, as if your words had the same power to kill as bullets. But, statistically, seven or eight of those people would be dead before a year had passed.

If the measure of Death's deathliness is in its ability to routinely, and obviously, and presently produce fresh corpses, then of course Death has nothing necessarily to do with that cartoonish view of death or life. Yet, aren't the fresh corpses being piled up around you every moment of every day? Like for example, on your dinner plate?
"If you were to meet 1000 people at random...statistically, seven or eight of those people would be dead before a year had passed."
But, if instead Death's door and card are meant to remind each of your 1000 querents that the process of dying is always working in and around their illusions of life, there may be something deeper going on than the cartoon can imply. Or, is it instead that the corpses are being produced a little too slowly and alchemically for a shortened, dumbed-down, perception to grasp? Yet, again, 59 million of the most literal signs one could imagine are produced for the benefit of your deeper insight every single year. How fast and how obviously do you need the Cliff's Notes supplied to you on this?

So, if you are merely accounting for Death, that is keeping some kind of body count, and then supposing one that might actually get your attention, you may miss Death's deadly essence, its real meaning, which is why it is called Death and not something else. The idea that Tarot's Death is merely a scary idea for "change" is ridiculous, and misleading, because one is not then thinking about the deeper implications of the simple signs. This is because people have not been taught to think Tarotically; and that way of thinking, which I think may be too simple for their expectations of profundity, is to always be seeking the clear and obvious via the indirect and subtle.

While the Waite-Smith version of this card is a little more friendly and upbeat than some of the Renaissance-era card depictions, Death still comes to kill everyone, regardless of age or station in life. And Waite is explicit in how to read this card: "End, mortality, destruction, corruption"—yet almost nobody reads it that way.

With Death, the obvious would seem to be the corpses, which however may not be so obvious since, in addition to the fact we don't pay much attention to the (not so grateful) Greater Dead anyway, we like to hide them away in morgues and mortuaries and "resting places" mostly out of sight and mind. The subtle bit is that every moment of life is fueled by death, and utterly dependent upon it. The death part is after all just an initiation of the process of putrefaction.

What is that?

Well, simply, putrefaction is the process by which the cosmos takes you back to its bosom to see that your bits and pieces get processed into the nourishing milk of the stars. In other words, it is the process by which your corpse rots back to stardust. But before the cosmic dust bin, you'll be feeding bacteria, maggots, worms, all kinds of lucky living feeders. And they in turn will feed other larger creatures, until finally you will gift your highly processed soylent-silent-green to other humans.

Don't you feel better about death already?

Of course, in our culture, still influenced by the ancient Egyptians—who pretended to themselves, rather grandiloquently too, that death was just another state of human being, one for which they'd better dress for the part and pack a lunch (and build some impressive structures to hang out in)—we have opted out of the natural process. Hoping to make our corpses fit candidates to be dug up millennia from now by some future archaeologists, we have selfishly denied billions of maggots and worms their rightful meals, AND we keep clogging up the land with our stupid boxes and grave markers.

And that attitude, that death is really something that the right mood or amount of money can prevent from being all that bothersome, has permeated the ways in which Tarotic Death has been modernly processed by its purveyors.

After all, Death is a card in the Tarot pack (save for the ones where it has been renamed "Transition" or some other idiocy) and it just keeps coming up, doesn't it? And, the Tarot industrial workers say, it must not mean death because people keep on getting up from the reading, unfazed by its appearance. So obviously it cannot mean they are going to die.

That it cannot, literally, mean anything but that, the Tarot drones seem comfortably veiled from getting or admitting. For which one of us is not dying, and plummeting ever closer each moment to the skeletal embrace of that equal-opportunity transformer?

Oh wait! Transformer? Hey, that's the ticket. It's about TRANSFORMATION. Change. And that's not death, right?


That's why the corpse doesn't naturally just sit there all happy and positive about its condition. In fact, it is so bloody unhappy about its condition, its skin turns black (in a very bad way), its body fills with gas from the rot going on inside, maggots turn everything into an appetizing soup of decay, and the corpse keeps transforming until it has shed all suggestions it was ever a living thing at all, save for that beaming white set of bones. You know, the ones that make the most perfectly terrifying Halloween costume.

But, you will say, you are not yet a corpse. So, Death, if it does not death you outright, must be about something else entirely, something just about shifting from one living state to another, in this life.

Wrong again.

Death is always death.

And putrefaction is always working on you and on everything, even though you may experience its decaying work as the most vitalizing energy of pure Life.

But think, what is this Life?

The opposite of Death?

Or the picture in Death's frame? And that picture is billions of souls thick, but only expressed in a single pictorial plane of spirit. In other words, everyone is doing this same dance and magic act called LIFE.

That you do it your way and I do it mine is an encouragement to obtain a useful diversity, the object of which is apparently to assess the vitality and utility of all possible points of view. And this diversity, which itself is chaotic and divisively vivifying, is once again focused into a point of consanguineous reunion by the shadowing dance of Death.

And that dance is not one we engage in only at a singular point of annihilation, but is one that has engaged us from the moment that we took on this particular mortal coil, and which has kept us company in particulars since the Universe began.

In other words, we may be immortal cosmos chow, but we are never deathless. Not even the stars are that, and they are going to live a hell of lot longer than you.

No, you're here for a moment, living, seeing (if you're living right), dying.

And then dead.

You can be made afraid by this. Or you can be challenged by it to get off your dying ass and start some serious right living—now!

And yes, that does (or should) raise some (or many) questions.

So, you have some work to do then, don't you?

Suggestion, a small reading assignment. Read the story, Pillar of Fire, by Ray Bradbury.