The Death card is currently on my drawing table, and as I work on composition and color and symbolic details, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Lady Death.
The Death card in Tarot decks is one of those cards that always gets a bad rap in the mainstream media or in popular culture. Whenever it appears, it’s met with a sense of foreboding and fear. Remember when the snipers in Maryland left a Death card at the scene of one of their crimes? It even made the cover of Time magazine, if I remember correctly, in a rather lurid layout. Of course it turned out that the snipers really had nothing to do with Tarot — they apparently left the card because they knew it would frighten people, not because they had any affinity for, or knowledge of, Tarot. After they were apprehended, all references to the card seemed to drop out of the news stories. Reporters only focused on sensationalizing the Tarot Death card when they didn’t have anything more concrete to write about.
The Death card in a Tarot deck is one of my “touchstone” cards. I’m always curious to see how an artist interprets the edge of death and rebirth that this card implies. I tend to like the ones that don’t shy away from portraying how grim and final death can be, like the raven whose beak drips blood in the Greenwood Tarot. I don’t like the airy-fairy Death cards that show only rebirth or regeneration. You just don’t get one without the other. I think my favorite Death card is from the Motherpeace deck, which depicts a snake shedding its skin as it slithers through two trees, a skeleton nearby — truly a perfect graphic icon of death and rebirth. What is dead, is dead, and is left behind. What is new emerges, and moves on.
About ten years ago, I wrote an article for The Beltane Papers called “Dancing with Lady Death.” In it, I attempted to understand why Death had been such a strong presence in my life. Over a period of 25 years, I experienced four near-death experiences from illnesses myself, the death of my first boyfriend at age 18 in 1970, my mother’s death in 1984, my son’s death at age 15 in 1990, and my friend Helen’s slow death from breast cancer in 1994.
It’s been a long time since I’ve reread that article, and I’m not even sure that I want to. I’m very grateful that Lady Death has left me alone for the past ten years. And yet She still walks close by, as my father approaches his 89th birthday.
And She walks close by, in the knowledge that sudden unexpected death, or slow death by illness, can happen at any time to turn our ordered lives upside down.
When someone that you love dies, or when you are close to death yourself, the Otherworld opens up to you (or at least it can, if you don’t shut it down). For a time, you walk that edge between this world and the Other one. You see farther and more clearly. There’s no fuzziness about what is important and what is not. Phrases that have only been sentimental cliches in the past suddenly take on the weight of truth — cherish each day, don’t sweat the small stuff, nothing really matters but Love.
These are the gifts of Lady Death.