My experiences with death started at a very early age. In New Orleans, where I was born, small children were not sheltered from the dying and death events of others, as they are in many places. For instance, I was a pallbearer at my grandmother’s funeral when I was twelve years old.
I remember going to many wakes1 and funerals before I was a teenager; the passing of many elderly family members provided the opportunities. And, besides my parents and grandparents, I lost a child to death — and so has my daughter — and so has my son. In addition, I have performed many memorial and funeral ceremonies as a Christian minister. So death has often touched my life, one way or another, over the years.
Death will touch us all, sooner or later, as God’s word says. And as odd as it sounds, death is a part of life. It is the last event in our existence here — one that everyone will experience. The biggest problem is that most of us know little about death, except by observation, for there are no statements from the dead victims to help us understand what it is like.
“What about near-death experiences?” asked someone. Well, how much trust can you put into what a person says when their body is so badly afflicted that it is shutting down and dying? Besides, ‘near death’ does not mean ‘actual death’. While there is no promise of how much time we will spend living on this earth, be it one hour or one century, it will only be a tiny fraction of our promised future life under Christ’s rule. We do have God’s word to give us hope.
Today, whenever I meditate on the topic of death, one particular song comes to mind, written by the founder of the alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie, which had its beginning in the city where I currently live — Bellingham, Washington. This song, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Ben Gibbard, is a moving ballad about love and death (see the video link in References and Notes at the end of this article).2 Selected lyrics are as follows.
Love of mine
Someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark
The time for sleep is now
It’s nothing to cry about
When your soul embarks
I’ll follow you into the dark
Like many older people, I tend to scan the obituary columns of the local daily newspaper to see if anyone I once knew has passed on. A morbid curiosity, I guess. But having already lived for more than three quarters of a century, I sometimes metaphorically think of my own pending meeting with the Grim Reaper. Fortunately, I am not afraid.
Most World Cultures Have a Representative of Death
Death is frequently personified and imagined as the Grim Reaper in various cultures, but that is a newer accepted name for entities long known for hundreds and maybe thousands of years. In Greek mythology, the god of death (Thanatos) is one of the children of the goddess of night (Nyx). Celtic folklore shows a spectral figure foreshadowing death, the Ankou which drives a deathly cart piled high with corpses. In Ireland there was a creature known as the Dullahan along with a female spirit known as Banshee, who heralds death by shrieking. In Scottish folklore was the dog Cù-Sìth. In Welsh folklore, Gwyn ap Nudd is the escort of the grave. In Islam, Archangel Azrail is the Malak al-Maut (angel of death). He and his many subordinates pull the souls out of the bodies, and guide them through the journey of the afterlife.3
Latin America has La Calavera Catrina, a character in Mexican culture and art that symbolizes death. Our Lady of the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) is a female deity or saint of Mexican folk religion, whose faith has been spreading in Mexico and the United States. In Guatemala, San Pascualito is a skeletal saint revered as ‘King of the Graveyard’. In the Brazilian religion Umbanda, the orixá Omolu personifies sickness and death. In Norse mythology death is personified in the shape of Hel, the goddess of death. Lithuanians had Giltinė. In India, the lord of death is called King Yama. Nearly every culture has an ancient or modern version of the Grim Reaper.4
How Did the Name of Grim Reaper Come About?
Who is this Grim Reaper, anyway? You find this character in novels, movies, television shows, poetry, art work, and more. According to the dictionary,5 he is death personified as a man (or a skeleton) with a scythe.6 He lords over death, as well as those dark places deep within our imaginations. He’s a bit scary, I guess, and that is probably one of the reasons why most people are frightened of death.
Another reason for fear is all the suffering from the Black Death. This was not something from thousands of years ago, but dates back only a few hundred years, or so. “The Grim Reaper seems to have appeared in Europe during the world’s worst pandemic, the Black Death, believed to be the result of the plague.” The original outbreak occurred in 1347, with recurring outbreaks several other times after that. “So, clearly, death was something that the surviving Europeans had on their mind, and it is not surprising that they conjured an image to represent it.”7
The typical image is a skeletal figure in a robe with the scythe in hand and, maybe, an hour glass counting down the time left to live. “Skeletons are symbolic of death, representing the human body after it has decayed. The robe is thought to be reminiscent of the robes that religious figures of the time wore when conducting funerary services. The scythe is an apt image taken from agricultural practices of the time; harvesters used scythes to reap or harvest crops that were ready to be plucked from the earth . . . and, well, that’s kind of what happens when humans die, they are plucked from this earth.”8
During the plague, nearly everyone had dead loved ones to grieve and they wanted to place the blame on something, so artists began painting death as a horrific entity. Skeletons, armed with deadly weapons, danced among plague victims’ decaying bodies piled high in the street and sometimes rode in horse-drawn wagons full of corpses. So eventually, a black robed figure, the first recognizable Grim Reaper, began appearing at the head of macabre funeral processions.9 Today many people refashion the Grim Reaper into a fun character to party with on Halloween. Isn’t it interesting how Satan can turn things around to his advantage?
Fear of Death
“Everybody has a fear of death, no matter what culture, religion, or country they come from,” said Kelvin Chin, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, “Fear is simply an emotion caused by the anticipation of unhappiness.”10 That may be the case for most people, but I don’t believe it is always true, as I have known people close to death that were not at all fearful. Woeful or sad maybe, but not fearful.
No matter, when we, or someone we know, is nearing the end of their lives, we must all figure out our own way to handle death. One person, who overcame their own apprehension through years of professionally attending to the dying, says “death is rarely the terrible thing that most folks fret about. Very few people die screaming, they just go to sleep.” There are exceptions, of course and any pain experienced while waiting to die is one of them.
One fearful person overcame this fear in short order, realizing that she would live on in the memories of the people she loves — that was all that mattered to her, the fact that she would not be forgotten.11 Others I’ve found that don’t have a fear of death are Christians who have a deep faith in the promises that God lays out in the Holy Bible. So, is there something mentioned in the Bible, like the Grim Reaper?
Is the Grim Reaper in the Bible?
Well, the short answer is no — not really! In the Hebrew scriptures, Death is sometimes personified as a devil or angel of death (Job 18:13). And remember in Egypt, the Hebrews were enslaved and God rescues them by inflicting a “series of plagues on the Egyptians, climaxing in the death of all their firstborn sons in a single night.” The Hebrews were spared as the Angel of Death passed over their homes. That event is still celebrated today during ‘Passover’.12 In Christianity, Death is also one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse portrayed in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 6:7-8).
Most of those are (or will be) special cases directed by God for a specific purpose. For the vast majority of Christians, death isn’t associated with or caused by any angel of God, but is the result of sin. Over time, ever since Adam and Eve, the human body has gotten weaker and weaker; our life span has gotten shorter and shorter — all a result of sin.
But since Jesus has already suffered and died for our sins, we can be assured that our death on this earth will be nothing more than a temporary sleep-like state, until he raises us in the promised resurrection, just as he was raised after his own death. “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, NIV). “This clearly implies a future awakening. Because both their body and soul are dead, the term ‘sleep’ has to be a metaphor.”13
Our soul (our body) dies and turns to dust, but our Spirit returns to God for safe keeping. “The dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NLT). This Spirit, properly kept intact in a type of suspended consciousness,14 will be returned to us in a new body on earth, in the coming New World being created by Jesus.15 Immediately going to heaven after death is not an accurate Christian teaching. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, NRSV).
In the Revelation to John, “Christ speaks to his church through the apostle John, to encourage and guide his people. He urges them to persevere through times of darkness and great stress,”16 because later, after this life, they will have an opportunity to live with him in his glorious new world. This will be paradise restored and the last two chapters of the book of Revelation foretell this prophetic fulfilment.
This old world, along with any thoughts of the Grim Reaper, will be no more, because death will have been defeated. This prophetic preview shows a future when “Christ rules the new heavens and earth — the era in which all social and cultural realities will be directed toward Christ. In that era, we will have a right relationship with God, each other, and the created order, and our social and cultural activities will be perfect . . . reflections of Christ.”17
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- wake: a wake is a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral; it is a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died. In modern times, it is usually held at the funeral home, which may also furnish refreshment for the mourners.
- “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, song, Artist: Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie, (Live at “Loppapalooza”, in Grant Park, Chicago, 2 August 2019), Lyrics: Ben Gibbard) – VIDEO, https://youtu.be/YQ4q8i4_AsY
- “Death (personification)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 7 September 2019),
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
- scythe: an implement used for mowing and composed of a long curving blade fastened at an angle to a long handle.
- McKenna, Amy, “Where Does the Concept of a ‘Grim Reaper’ Come From?” (Encyclopædia Britannica, retrieved 14 September 2019), https://www.britannica.com/story/where-does-the-concept-of-a-grim-reaper-come-from
- “Grim Reaper”, (Mythology Net, 23 May 2017), https://mythology.net/mythical-creatures/grim-reaper/
- Horovitz, Bruce, “Death Doesn’t Have to Be So Scary”, (The Epoch Times, 29 August 2019), section C, p. 7.
- “Death (personification)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.), see above.
- Graeser, Mark H., et al., Is There Death After Life? (Indianapolis, IN: Christian Educations Services, Inc., 1992), p. 47.
- suspended consciousness: a temporary cessation of activity; a limited loss of consciousness resembling death.
- Hermann, Ray, “What is the Soul?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 26 February 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-is-the-soul-is-it-a-spirit-or-something-else/
- Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), p. 693.
- Ashford, Bruce Riley, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), p. 20.