Death Through The Ages: Journey with Grim Reaper

Death’s Diary:

A look into the mind of the Grim Reaper as he travels across years, cultures and spaces to assist departing souls.

399 BC Athens, Ancient Greece

Socrates had only been a blip on my radar.  I knew his time was near given his age (70) and I knew that his risk factor was slightly higher because of his public persona status, but I have to be honest and say that I hadn’t give much thought to him at all.  I’ve been quite busy in general over the last hundred years or so, although not so much in Greece thanks to their excellent medical advances (I’ve also been enjoying my rest time so that I’m alert for the upcoming Plague of Athens). When Socrates’ trial began the atmosphere was electric, especially because Socrates was a dynamic speaker and there was alot of emotion involved by the prosecutors. I enjoyed the trial immensely and am glad that Plato was there to note the atmosphere down – I’m looking forward to what he will write. However, I never really thought Socrates would die! I felt his convictions growing stronger and stronger as the trial continued, but when he willingly drank that poison I felt so in a state of shock that I was a bit slow to act!  Patriotic and true to his word until the very end, he came with me stoic, proud and oblivious to the feelings he’d left behind.

1870 Staithes, United Kingdom[1]

I thought I would include this sleepy Yorkshire village in my journal because a) the sea air always relaxes my soul and b) the women are a wonderful example of how death is not an individual phenomenon. Whenever I arrive and witness them in the midst of caring for their dying with vigour and then preparing the corpses, I feel both in awe and overwhelmingly tired. It’s always fascinating to me to see how humans dispose of the body afterwards, but generally I expect a bit of a show.  I remember the years before when even the Neanderthals left shells and tools and coloured their deceased with ochre! (De Spelder & Strickland, 1983: 35).  Now in Staithes they wash the body thoroughly, tie up the jaw and adorn it with Maltese lace and a pleated sheet. The women announce and prepare the funeral, often bear the coffin, and serve funeral food (of which the Madeira cake I would love to eat if I had physical form!)  In their black and white clothes and hats, these female bearers form an imposing V – virtuous and strong – before taking to their homes in solitude and mourning for as long as they deem necessary. Such team spirit!

1883 Munich, Germany[2]

During the last few years the world has changed rapidly. They are calling this time an “Industrial Age” and it has brought about many changes for me. Firstly, I seem to be taking many adults as a result of work-related accidents and secondly, death itself has been called into question. Do you know that I hear people asking when is someone dead?! I scoffed at first (of course I did – I’m Death personified) but then I began to wonder. Given that I am immortal and without corporeal form, this is something I have never really thought about before. People come to me when their time is up, plain and simple. However, I can see the confusion. Sometimes the body stops but the mind does not, sometimes the soul leaves but the body ticks on.  It’s a conundrum that has puzzled the world and in the process sparked some imaginations, as in the case of Edgar Allen Poe or the people of Transylvania who have begun encountering “vampires” among them (Kastenbaum, 2001: 36).  I am currently in Munich where the local death-houses have constructed the most unorthodox methods for determining whether death really is death. A guard will sit watch over corpses whom have a tiny ring on one finger which is then attached to a bell – should a person happen to not really be dead they will thus inadvertently sound the bell by moving (Kastenbaum, 2001: 36). Obviously I know when one is truly dead so my time there is brief, but I have stayed long enough times to witness the morbid waiting of the watchmen, his eyes like pallid lights in the gloom, quivering when the sudden clamour sounds (Twain, 1883 in Kastenbaum, 2001: 36)!

1970 Staithes, United Kingdom (update)

I try not to double up in my journal (think of how long it would be otherwise!) but I feel compelled to write of the change that has affected the world. Funerals are not quite the family affair they used to be and instead are becoming quite the money vehicle for professionals (Aries, 1974:99). Even in my beloved Staithes I have noticed a change over the past years! The women are no longer overseeing the preparation of the corpse or bearing the coffin – and worst of all they are not making more Madeira cake (Cline, 1995: 44).  I am unsure of how I feel about this, particularly when so much of the world is turning to cremation and the appointment of funeral directors to do everything.

1991 Winchester, United Kingdom[3]

I always find the United Kingdom a beautiful place to visit, but lately my trips there have not been very straightforward. The following is a good case in point.  I have had a woman named Mrs Lillian Boyes on my list for a while now.  To say that she has been sick would be an understatement.  Her rheumatoid arthritis was one of the worst British professionals had ever seen, and her condition was made worse by the presence of septicaemia, gangrene and body abscesses. When I arrived her screams were unlike anything I had ever heard before and it was so bad that even heroin (given as pain relief) offered her no comfort. I heard her begging – pleading – to be allowed to die and I have to admit that even to me her plight was distressing. I waited many days, my ears ringing with her cries. When she refused mediation five days ago, I readied myself to work -now, surely, my time had come to step in. But nothing happened! Mrs Boyes’ heart was beating as it was when I’d first arrived and I could see that Doctor Cox was at his wits end. He just did not know ethically how to proceed. On August 16 he entered the room looking calm, serious but tense, as a man who’d accepted a grave decision, and I knew then that he’d decided to give her what she was begging for. As the potassium chloride entered her bloodstream I drifted over to her, and her eyes met mine. I took her soul quickly and she came to me without looking back. Before I left I looked to her doctor, sitting on the chair beside her bed, exhausted. I nodded my head to him in acknowledgment of his act as I went, going past the nurse who was hurriedly leaving to report him for what he’d done.

2006 Kerikeri, New Zealand[4]

They say that variety is the spice of life and for me that is certainly true. What makes my job interesting is the fact that no matter where I go, mourning is never the same. Although human, there are so many influencing factors that determine this process like situation, life experience, gender, culture, customs, religion, society etc.  The New Zealand Maori always fascinate me – how I recall the days when I would eagerly watch their traditional war dance ‘the haka’ before my work would begin.  Their deaths are usually large, family affairs and the great wail “haeremai” that heralds their funerals will often linger in my ears for hours afterwards.  However in these years of global culture, the internet and weakening borders, sometimes it is difficult for me to gauge substantial differences between people in life. Death has thus emerged as a time to re-associate with one’s culture. In the case of the Maori, they harken back to creation beliefs that was overwritten during colonisation whereby there is a different connection between person and place to what is now accepted. The writer P. Beatson describes this as an umbilical cord with the land which connects the Maori to their ancestors in Hawaiki, their gods and demi-gods and the cosmos (1989). To them, I am called “Hine-nui-te-Po and they come to me with what I term ‘reluctant willingness’ (Beatson, 1989: 628).  When I am not working – which is rare – I read, and this line strikes me as apt to describe the Maori attitude: “I go but do not weep. No weeping, it is my time” (Mataira, 1984 in Beatson, 1989: 628).


The above journal entries have been imagined in the voice of the Grim Reaper, a popular personification of Death.  Death is a figure that has taken many forms: from the feared and disfigured through to field labourer with scythe (Van Gogh), from the dancing skeleton to the harpies of Homer (Kastenbaum, 2001: 49). Here I have written Death as a gender-neutral conversational voice with a touch of loneliness. Through Death I have highlighted suicide, the biomedical approach, mourning and funeral rites, euthanasia and Maori ritual, because I feel that they provide an interesting overview of the many layers that are involved in a study of death and dying.  I shall now briefly look at each in turn, with my own reflections.

I chose to begin with the death of Socrates, who willingly accepted death by poison as one of the most famous acts of suicide in history.  I described his personal response as pride, not only because he stood by his convictions but because academics note that there was a general feeling of honour towards suicides amongst many Ancient Greek and Romans (Johnson, 1994: 253).  However, this death could also be viewed as a form of heroic death, which is affirmed by the understanding that society acts as a vehicle for symbolic hero-making through the use of customs and norms (Becker, 1973 in Seale, 1995: 597). The sociologist Giddens (1991) wrote that death upset the easy passage towards individual hero-making because of its anxiety inducing effect, however this was often eased by religion’s gift of a higher purpose (in Seale, 1995: 598). In modern times, the lessening of religious ties has prompted some academics to propose that death has become taboo (Aries, 1974) or even pornographic (Gorer, 1955). Others, such as Seale assert that there are ample opportunities today for individuals to create narratives whereby they rise above death after a struggle, thus showing great courage (1995: 602).  Although Socrates lived before the ‘modern’ time, he chose to die because his words were his beliefs, and therefore they were afforded more power as he died ‘heroically.’

       There are many ways to interpret Biomedical approaches but I decided to base this entry on Mark Twain’s writing because it seemed highly visual while also appearing somewhat comical. Michel Foucault sums up Biomedicine as a “new medical spirit with the discovery of pathological anatomy, which seemed to define it in its essentials” (1975: 124). In the scene I describe it is possible to witness that a) the corpse is no longer in the hands of the family and b) that death has become mechanized.  This last refers to what P. Aries explains as a “technical phenomenon (…) a series of little steps, which finally makes it impossible to know which step was the real death” (1974: 88).  Further, the passage demonstrates how the individual (or their family) no longer has any autonomy, for their return to life remains in the hands of the watchman, a member of the medical team and an outsider, and always on the lookout to obtain an ‘acceptable death’ and one that avoids any embarrassment to the living (Aries, 1974: 89).

       I included Staithes to provide an image of one of the many funeral and mourning practices in existence.  However I also included Death as being appreciative of their efforts given that their clinging to tradition and burials contrasted them against the vast majority of areas who were preferring “paid professionalism” (Cline, 1995: 44). For example, in the seventies funeral practices underwent sudden metamorphosis which saw men replace women in ritual, along with the inclusion of a funeral director who took care of the corpse (Cline, 1995: 44).  As years have continued to pass, Clines notes that Staithes has continued to bury their dead despite “the trend towards a more clinical impersonal standardisation of death (…) to which such moral matters have been placed in the hands of male professionals” (1995:44). I understand this point as directly relating to my paragraph on Biomedicine, in which power has been transferred away from the family and individual and into “the masters of death” (Aries, 1974: 89).

Euthanasia was not an easy topic to write, mainly because thinking about it too deeply was upsetting. I cannot even imagine being in the kind of pain or despair that would cause me to want to end my life. It was also a topic that the media consumes rapidly, so there were many vivid options to choose from. This is interesting as it brought to life the idea that the media latches on to images of death and sends it out widely as public discourse, while at the same time these topics are not referred to in the private sphere (Walter, Littlewood & Pickering, 1995: 593). It was this that made me think of Gorer’s ‘Pornography of death’ claim. Gorer refers to pornography as“shameful or absorrent, so that it can never be discussed or referred to openly” and this is a claim that applies to euthanasia, as shown in the case of Mrs Boyes (Gorer, 1995: 19).  Gorer adds that pornography is “clandestine” – which would apply to those committing the act (in this instance Doctor Cox) – however I am hesitant to say that anyone would have felt “pleasurable guilt or guilty pleasure” afterwards (Gorer, 1995: 20). For this reason, I described Death viewing the Doctor as tired and weary but also satisfied – the job was now over and there would now be no more “feelings of guilt and unworthiness” (Gorer, 1995: 20).

There were many modern day examples I could have written about next but I chose to look at the experience of Maori with death and dying because it allowed me to draw comparisons between worldviews, and how these shape our approaches to what death is.  It is interesting that Maori choose death as a time to assert customs which are slowly disappearing from practice, although Beatson writes that this is because death is the moment when one’s cosmic relationship becomes more visible (1989: 58). Death is the moment that causes people to turn to religion, spirituality or something of comfort, and for the Maori they remember that human life is part of a circle that wraps around both geography and the past (Beatson, 1989: 58). This idea allows the Maori to reconnect with their cosmic genealogy, in which they are connected centrally (Beatson, 1989: 59). Beatson believes that its purpose is not only spiritual but political: it “work[s] to confer a central position in the universal scheme of things upon the Maori, who have been marginalized in Western cosmology” (1989: 55). This would apply on numerous levels, the most paramount being that the Maori are trying to assert themselves independently from their European colonisers.

Each diary entry has been selected to showcase the pattern that attitudes towards death and dying has followed over the years. From the time when death was accepted and even welcomed by autonomous beings (suicide) through to its inclusion into Biomedicine and the movement of the deathbed; the strong ritual and public mourning exhibited by the living, through to the quietening of private discourse and the contradictory shouting of the media.  Finally, to show the use of death as a political agent to strengthen cultural and societal bonds which have been struggling against the threat of extinction. This has been a paper which has caused me to think about not only what it means to die but what it means to live – to be human – and it seems evident from the tightly interwoven nature of the dead and the living left behind that this relationship is not so different after all.



Aries, P. Western Attitudes toward Death from The Middle Ages to The Present, London:          Marion Boyars, 1974.

Beatson, P. ‘The Politics of the Supernatural’ in The Healing Tongue: Themes in           Contemporary Maori Literature, Palmerston North, Sociology Department, Massey     University, 1989, pp. 57-67.

Cline, S. Lifting The Taboo: Women, Death and Dying, London: Little Brown and        Company, 1995, Chapter 2.

De Spelder, L.A. & Strickland, A.L. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and             Dying, California: Mayfield, 1983, Chapter 2. ELIAS, N. The Loneliness of The     Dying, Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Foucalt, M. The Birth of the Clinic, London: Vintage, 1975, Chapter 8.

Gorer, G. (1995, 4th edition). “The Pornography of Death” in J.B. Williamson and         Shneidman, E.S. Death: Current Perspectives.  California> Mayfield.  pp. 18-22.

Johnson, M.J. Bioethics a nursing perspective, Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1994 (second   edition), Chapter 12.

Kastenbaum, R.J. Death, Society and Human Experience, Sydney: Allyn and Bacon,    1995 (fifth edition), Chapter 2.

Marks, Kathy. Doctor’s dilemma of pain or death: Dr Nigel Cox will be sentenced   today for the attempted murder of one of his patients, 70-year-old Lillian Boyes. The      Independent. 21 September 1992. Retrieved 10 June 2015.       nigel-cox-will-be-sentenced-today-for-the-attempted-murder-of-one-of-his-patients-         70yearold-lillian-boyes-kathy-marks-looks-back-at-his-trial-1552676.html

Oppenheim, R.S. Maori Death Customs, Wellington, Reed, 1993, Part Two.

Seale, C. ‘Heroic Death’, Sociology, Vol. 29, No.4, pp.597-613, 1995.

Walter T.; Littlewood, J.; & Pickering, M. ‘Death in the News: The Public         Investigation of Private Emotion’ Sociology, 29(4), November 1995.

Additional Reading

1880’s. Wikipedia. 5 June 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2015 from:

Euthanasia Cases (2006). Chris Docker (ed). Retrieved 10 June 2015 from:

Giddens, A. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge, Cambridge University             Press, 1974, pp. 10-15, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 14.

Plague of Athens. Wikipedia. 2 June 2015. Retrieved 10 June 2015 from:

Rachels, J. (1993). ‘Euthanasia’ in Regan, T. (eds), Matters of Life and Death, New York,         McGraw-Hill, Chapter 2.

[1] Case study by David Clark in S. Clines 1995

[2] Based on Mark Twain n Kastenbaum 2001

[3] Case of Lillian Boyes

[4] Based on R.S. Oppenheim (1993)

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