3 Reasons We Must Allow Death to be About Death

death tarot arcanum XIII

It was only when I started doing my research for the talk I’m doing at this years UK Tarot Conference that I realised how brainwashed I had been. Like so many other Tarot readers, I had been guilty of quickly reassuring clients that the Death card never means actual physical death but instead represents change and transformation through various lessons in life.

The reason for my take on the Tarot Death card was, of course, the fact that I bought into society’s repressed collective values which generate such a massive Shadow (in the Jungian sense) when it comes to owning our mortality. It’s very easy to buy into something that we on some level wish to repress as individuals. This is how despots and religious leaders successfully manipulate the masses by pressing the hidden fear button.

The Grim Reaper

In the Death card of any tradition (Thoth, Waite or Marseille), we have a clear visual representation of a grim reaper type being, which screams ‘DEATH’ and which is probably the reason there was no need to name the 13th arcanum in medieval times. Words (what we spell) have power and there was no need to invite more of the same… Death was everywhere thanks to the plague and the high infant mortality rate, so hiding death wouldn’t have been possible.

Now that we are much better able to hide death, what has happened in our modern, superficial, media-driven society is that our refusal to talk about our mortality has generated a Shadow expression of ‘spookiness’ when it comes to the Tarot. Any time the Tarot shows up in a film, you can count on seeing Death, The Tower, The Devil and/or The Hanged Man… but especially Death. Sometimes it is featured in comedy too and then always in the sense of someone actually about to bite the dust.

Because, let’s face it. We may be in denial but we are not stupid.

Death means death.

This weekend, I did my Jikiden Reiki Okuden training. One of my coursemates asked me what I do for a living. When I told her I was a Tarot reader, she immediately asked if I contact the spirits of the dead too. I said, ‘No, that doesn’t really interest me, since I like to use the Tarot cards proactively in the now,’ She said, ‘Well, I prefer the Angel Cards – the Tarot crosses over to the dark side, doesn’t it?’ I said, ‘No, that’s bollocks; the Tarot covers all of life’s lessons. Any spookiness associated with the Tarot is only because of how it’s commonly portrayed in media.’

She instantly got the reference and said, ‘Oh, I know the Death card isn’t about Death – it’s about change,’ looking very proud of herself for remembering what she might have been told by a Tarot reader or read in some New Age magazine. I looked at her and said ‘And sometimes it is about death. Should we fear death?’ She had a bit of a light bulb moment…  ‘No, you’re right. And I actually don’t any more,’ she said.

Three Reasons We Need to Reclaim XIII Death for The End of Life

XIII Death Waite Smith Tarot


In an age when spirituality has become almost synonymous with being in denial about any of life’s harsher lessons, we need to allow the Death card to whisper to us about our mortality more than ever. Or we do if we wish to avoid a perpetual state of denial.

Thanatos and Eros

Because thanatos and eros (our two strongest drives) are both represented in the Scorpio energy Death card (there can be no birth without death), we become lopsided and unable to move forward if we embrace one and not the other. Think of these two drives as two propeller blades on the same propeller. If we move forward with only one blade operational, we become like the Priest who speaks to others of the need for salvation but who cannot save himself, so that when Death comes knocking he pleads for more time. Or we become like the King who refuses to part with temporal power and whose last vision as he draws his final breath is of the crown falling to the ground.

Refusing to deal with what is inevitable does not make it go away.

Embracing Mortality

Embracing our mortality, contemplating it and preparing for the end of our earthly life frees us from hidden fears ruling our lives and allows us to live life to the full. Wise men and women from many spiritual paths have been aware of this and tried to teach mankind about the importance of being mindful of our mortality. Only when we own our mortality fully, can we die without regret.

The young child who seems nonplussed by Death’s presence is fully in the now. She has no regrets and no expectations. We cannot remain in a state of childlike innocence through life (as the Major Arcana shows us) but must progress and yet, in the Sun card, the fully individuated human has returned to a state of childlike grace and innocence because she is not in denial of any aspect of the self but has chosen to love them all.

If we allow Death to address issues around our mortality we can perhaps hear this arcanum whisper… ‘Do you know how to die well?’ To die well means to do without regret and to die without regret means living life to the full.

CLICK HERE for a FREE Download of the 5 Tarot Spreads I created based on the The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.


Comments 12

  1. For me, this card is often about needing to take time to truly grieve or mourn, whether an actual death, your own future death, or one of those transitions. I think this is part of what you’re coming at: owning the sadness and the pain and the darkness and the powerlessness. After all, other transitions can bring this sense of mortality to the fore, too: just ask any retiree!

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  2. Interestingly, with readings I’ve done 10 of Swords is more likely to represent physical Death than the Death card, especially if they’ve just crossed over.

    I agree with your point though.

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  3. Hiya Lisa. Happy day to you. Death card… As only a learner in tarot my unconscious training would play a part with the sitter here. As with all. Id explore with the sitter the card at hand. I will find the answers to the card this way. Like peoples personalities fluctuate I would like to believe the card meanings do too. Kev

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      Yes, you have meet the Seeker (I don’t like the word ‘sitter’) where they ARE 🙂 Card meanings have many layers and possible interpretations but we have to be careful so that they don’t just start meaning ANYthing.

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  4. Very interesting article, Lisa!
    I’ve found that one of the most important things to remind tarot beginners of is that there are no set meanings! A card never means the same thing in every reading for every seeker. It’s very tempting to “simplify” tarot by assigning each card with 4-5 keywords as meanings and then just stick to that, but after a while you will start to notice that those readings are not “accurate” because tarot is simply not that simple. 😉 Saying that Death never means physical death is just like saying that Death always means X or Y. There are no “always” nor “never” when it comes to tarot.

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      Thanks, Ania. What people who get obsessed by keywords tend to forget is that the Tarot is a visual medium and that a picture literally DOES say more than a thousand words – especially when it comes to the Archetypes of the Major Arcana, which covers all of life’s lessons, from birth to beyond the grave. I would never recommend a beginner to start by learning keywords. We are better off by connecting emotionally with the Tarot images and allowing the imagery to be in dialogue with our imagination. I’m not saying it is wrong to HAVE keywords, I just don’t think it’s the best starting points when you try to learn a language of symbols which is more lyrical than intellectual in nature. Every beginner should also learn from the start that there are three layers of meaning to each card and that all cards contain the full spectrum of light and dark (i.e. there are no ‘bad’ cards).

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