Death (XIII) is the 13th trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks. The Death card signals that one major phase in your life is ending, and a new one is going to start.
“For Life and Death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” – Khalil Gibran
The one thing King or commoner can be certain of is death. So it is not surprising that upon seeing a skeleton or a grim reaper featured on the Death card folk shrink in horror, taking it to be an omen, to be forecasting a physical death.
In Medieval times the card was indeed reinforcing the social message that we each have an appointment with death. However, these days, rather than scare the horses, some tarot readers are quick to point out that pulling the Death card rarely represents a physical death. They reassure the querent that this card is one of the most positive cards because, more often than not, it implies an end, possibly of a relationship or interest.
In a death denying society it is little wonder that, for the uninitiated, seeing the Death card in a reading can be enough to give the fearful a bad dose of anxiety and send them searching the internet to check if that sudden migraine is actually the beginning of a brain tumor.
This diversionary tactic ignores the fact that words such as endings, failure, letting go of attachments, mortality, profound change and severe illness are associated with this card. To ignore some of these and focus on ‘positivity’ is to ignore ‘the elephant in the room’. Surely it is more honest and beneficial to be facing and talking about death! By not talking about and facing death we not only lose our control but we seriously limit our options. When we don’t speak openly we literally don’t know what’s coming next in terms of disease progression, treatment options, when to stop treatment, and how to plan around our preferences for the end of our lives, and after.
Over twenty years ago I volunteered at the Melbourne City Mission, providing therapeutic writing courses for palliative care staff and carers. Seven years ago I was a facilitator for the first Death Cafe in the town I moved to after my husband’s death. Both experiences have affirmed how empowering and life affirming it is to talk about death.
A Shifting Approach Gains Momentum
“The greater our knowledge increases, the more our ignorance unfolds.” John F. Kennedy
A movement to bring about change, a shift away from empowering funeral homes to determine how we mark the death of a loved one is happening in Australia. Jenny Briscoe-Hough has been general manager of the Port Kembla NSW Community Project for over 20 years and has been working on providing alternative, affordable funerals for the past 14. Funerals, she says, “can be not good or they can be absolutely transformational. It doesn’t have to be a cold and rushed formal service, followed by desultory sandwiches. It can be far more imaginative than that.
Being courageous enough to explore and embrace death and its aftermath as the natural and sacred end of our lives really enhances the quality and depth of our living.Zenith Virago
Fifteen years ago, when my husband died, we didn’t use the traditional funeral parlour. It was news to me that you could have a funeral in the back yard or a park if you wanted to. Syd Peak and Daughter enabled us to have a ‘transformative’ funeral in the park opposite our home, of the kind that Tender Funerals and Zenith Virago are now offering. Perhaps the most moving aspect of what we did at the time is that his biking community took his ashes, sewn into a toy bear, on the biking trip to Queensland that he had so wanted to do.
In my experience it is the living, rather than the dead that need to find a way to RIP! After all, the dead are dead aren’t they? It is the living who have to manage to go on living!
All cultures have ways of dealing with and managing grief. I first learned about the concept of Descansos when I read Clarissa Pinkola Estes ‘Women Who Run With Wolves’. Estes describes how when you travel in Old Mexico, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Arizona, or parts of the South, you will see little white crosses by the roadside. These are descansos mark resting places and formally marking these resting places with crosses, memorabilia and flowers offers some solace to those left behind. The concept of marking resting places is not confined to the United States or Mexico. They may be found in Greece, Italy and many other countries, including Australia.
Over the years I have encouraged participants in my writing classes to address their losses by making Descansos in their journals or on a website. When I made a site after the death of my husband I was applying the concept of Descansos to mark the loss. Making Descansos is a wonderful way to honour all the big and little deaths, the endings, the transformative events that we have experienced.
Death Signalling the Need to Adapt
The Death card is the number 13 card of the Major Arcana. It’s astrologically associated with the sign of Scorpio, the sign representing “sex, death, and taxes.” Seeing the Death card in a reading is not a foreboding omen. It does not foretell the death of the person being read, or anyone else for that matter. Rather, it symbolizes the ending of a cycle and the transition into a new one.
Of course, faced with actual death we inevitably end one cycle and move into another. Unless we end one phase of our life, we cannot begin a new one. Children move out of home, we change jobs, relationships end, we move houses, states and countries.
The Northern Animal Tarot reminds us to look at nature and to learn from the cycles she goes through. Another option is to go online and learn about how different cultures deal with death and dying.
Pull out your journal and consider some of the following.
1. What things have changed in your life?
2. Faced with death, will you have any regrets about choices you have made?
3. In order to make the most out of life, is there something you feel you need to change?
4. Has something blocked you from making this change? What have you never done that you want to do before you die?
5. Is there something you need to walk away from now?
6. What are the barriers to making the changes you need in your life?
8. What makes you frightened of, or threatened by, change?
9. What will you lose if you make the changes that you want to make?
10. What support would help you to make these changes?
11. How do you see your life after making the changes that you need to make?
12. How can you help others to accept the changes that you have to make?
13. Is it time for you to put the old ways of thinking behind you; to finally free yourself from a past which no longer serves you?
Some ‘light’ reading
- How I Learned to Talk about Death and Dying
- How to Talk About Death and Dying
- Talking to Someone About Dying