Death is in the cards!
The popular notion (and by that, I mean “common among the general population”) about the Death card is that it says that someone is going to die. For a couple of graphic examples, see the following comic book covers from decades past, both ominously announcing: “DEATH is in the cards!”
A sad result of this is that novices often adhere to that interpretation, with unfortunate results. For example, I have a friend who got a reading years ago from an insensitive Tarot reader who foretold of her impending death. This predicted death did not come to pass, which must have been a relief for my friend, but the anxiety she suffered for a while after that reading was traumatic, and so to this day she refuses to have a reading done for her.
But novices aside, there is a great deal of controversy among experienced Tarot readers about how to interpret the Death card with regard to indicating an actual death. I don’t think there is a definitive position on the subject, but a lot of people have very strong opinions about it. A couple of years ago I initiated a discussion about this on the Yahoo group, Comparative Tarot. Much of what follows is a synthesis of opinions expressed there.
While I invite your responses to this post and I look forward to your input, I trust that everyone will respect each other’s opinions in the process. (I only make this point because several years ago at a Tarot event, a couple of attendees were rather derisive of opposing views.)
Most Tarot readers see this card as an indication of some sort of transformation or transition, but does it ever indicate an actual, physical death? Or is it even ethical to predict physical death in a Tarot reading? On the other hand, is it ethical to avoid making such a prediction?
Although I have on rare occasion seen the Death card signify a physical death, in my readings it has always indicated either a death that has already transpired (for example, in a reading for a recent widow) or one that is expected, such as for a querent with a terminally ill loved one. In such cases, it addresses questions about how this person is dealing with death, or perhaps about what s/he believes about the afterlife.
I had rarely heard of a Tarot reader accurately predicting a death that was not already foreseen by the querent, so I was interested in the variety of answers I’ve gotten. Many readers say that they would never predict a death during a reading. Since they don’t presume to be 100% accurate, they are concerned about possibly causing undue stress, or even setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, some say that if they get a strong sense of an actual death, they feel obliged to tell the querent about it in order to give him/her an opportunity to prepare for it.
Others give a very conditional yes to the question of predicting death in a reading. For example, almost every Tarot reader who has told me that s/he is willing to predict an actual death says that there have to be other dire cards in the reading to support that interpretation, such as the Three or Ten of Swords, the Tower card, or the Five of Cups. Another piece of advice is to try to gauge in advance a querent’s ability to cope with grim news and his or her level of awareness that something is wrong. But even then, most agree that we should try to couch such a prediction in qualified terms. For example, one might say something like, “You say your father is going in for surgery. I see some danger here, and perhaps you should be prepared for the possibility that he may not make it.”
The consensus seems to be that if we sense an actual death in the cards, we should tread very carefully, guided by our intuition and tempered by our empathic sense of how well the querent is equipped to deal with such information. So I hesitate to say that no one should ever predict a death in a Tarot reading, but I strongly feel that the less experienced you are at reading the cards, the more hesitant you should be about predicting an actual death.
In case you’re interested, here are some other ways to interpret the Death card:
A loss or ending of something
A herald of transformation
The end of an important cycle and the transition to come
Leaving the past behind
A need to realize that “it’s over” so let it go and move on
“Down time” necessary for reconstruction and new growth
Relinquishing old ideas, attitudes, etc. to make room for new ones (which may be yet to come)
A realization of our own mortality
And here is a wonderful quote for this card: “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus
Finally, note that on the RWS version of this card, the figure of Death carries a flag with a white rose set upon a black background. Traditionally, the black background means Death and the white rose symbolizes the immortal aspect of Life. So from a spiritual perspective, a physical life is transient but the life of the soul is eternal.
Addendum (April 27, 2010): At the Readers Studio last weekend, one of the “door prizes” was a copy of a comic book from 1981: Madame Xanadu #1, which featured Tarot cards on the cover, including the Death card, which is being held up rather ominously. The winner of this prize (Melissa Hill) has kindly scanned the cover for me, and here it is:
Addendum 2 (September 18, 2013): I found another example of the Death card on a comic book cover. This time, I found it in an inhouse ad in a 1978 comic book. The ad is for a new comic book called “Doorway to Nightmare” and you can see it below. (Appropriately enough, DtN was very short lived. Perhaps the choice of the Death card for the cover was prophetic?)