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Death is in the cards!

April 12, 2010

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

RWS 2.0 Death

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:

Madam Xanadu #1

Melissa Jo Hill

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?)

Doorway to Nightmare comic book

  1. Whew, James you pick some hot, hard topics! BTW, I loved your comics! That is absolutely wicked. I am not by any means a “fluffy bunny” psychic (tall dark handsome stranger, around the world cruise…unless there is dang good reason to support this, and even then, I double check my facts). I am a psychic skeptic, psychic. Saying this, do I see death? Yes.

    Do I tell people of death, not directly, no. Do I warn people who need to be warned? Yes. I saved a 20 year old’s life from a head on collision back in 1979, by our telepathic connection to get her car off the road: I was 19. I saved her life. She saw the car that was going to hit her, hit another car head on; there were no suvivors.

    Have I ever seen death in the death card? Coupled with an illness card, I have suggested to folks to check with a specific physician (Gyn, or GP, etc) in their next check up to see if they have anything going on. First, I ask if they have a history of___________, to see if I am even on target, if not, then I mention a general doctor’s visit might be a good idea, if they haven’t had one in a while.

    I look for solutions to a possible outcome in my cards, not giving news that is inevitable, because nothing is inevitable unless it is clear it is too late to do anything about it.

    I give my clients constructive advice on how to handle a possible problem. What about a familal death? I will explain what I see in the cards (not death, but illness), ask gently how the family member is doing, then discuss with them quietly how they feel about the family person’s illness and if they have counseling available to handle their grief.

    Why? I am not a professional counselor as a MFCC (California License) or an LPCC (Licenced Professional Counceling Credentials), but a psychic. I will discuss with them spiritually how they view death, the process of dying (if they are open to it) and suggest books that can assist them.

    I won’t determine a date of death, nor will I suggest how long someone has (to still be alive), but I will discuss various windows people have (when their life’s work is done, when they have finished business with others and it is clear they are doing this, etc) and give them something to assist their understanding as well as acceptance.

    James, I almost crossed myself at age 14 under a solid concrete dock that had no oxygen, just water above. We cannot determine transition dates, but know they will happen, if the person is meant to go. I wasn’t. I was sent back by a very stern guide, who got me out of the water.

    • Thanks for the wonderful comments, Mary!
      Your comment: “I look for solutions to a possible outcome in my cards” – This is, of course, valuable advice for any sort of problem. I have found that my readings always show a solution of some sort as well as a problem.
      For issues about illness and death, your comment: “… discuss with them quietly how they feel about the family person’s illness and if they have counseling available to handle their grief.” shows what a great reader you are. This sort of empathy and support is quite valuable, and is unfortunately undervalued by a few people I’ve encountered.
      And your note that we (at least, most of us, I guess) are not licensed counselors is important too. (I would just add a reminder that we are not licensed doctors either, which is something that some people forget.) But there is much that we can do, such as your suggestion: “I will discuss with them spiritually how they view death, the process of dying (if they are open to it) and suggest books that can assist them.” (Do you have a book or two you would like to suggest here?)
      Also thanks for sharing about your NDE. I’m sure that experience has had a profound effect on your work with the Tarot, especially with regard to dealing with issues about death.

  2. Great post, James! As always, I agree with a lot of what’s said here regarding this touchy subject. I will try not to reiterate what has already been said (as it has already been said so well by both you and Rev. Miller), though I will lend my support on how valuable it is to refer our clients to those licensed professionals or literature that we trust (if our clients don’t already have a resource) when they need advice about important matters…such as death. I, personally, recommend the book “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler Ross, a very well-known book on the grieving cycle, which can also apply to any loss we may experience in our lives.

    In my early days of reading tarot (about 20+ years ago), I experienced only one time when the Death card actually meant death – a very similar experience to Mary’s. A young woman, who frequently asked me questions about her on-again/off-again boyfriend, asked if she should go to a particular formal event he invited her to. At the time, I was reading straight from the little book that goes with the deck and worked pretty strictly with the Celtic Cross spread.

    The reading produced the Ten of Swords (near future), the Tower (hopes/fears), though I can’t remember the exact card or the position (I think the 7 of cups may lend this definition) one card said “intoxication” in the definition, and the outcome was the Death card. Obviously, all these together did not bode well.

    I wanted to be sure about this, so we gathered the cards up for a re-shuffle and re-asked the question. Those same exact cards appeared in the next reading, some different cards in the early positions of the spread, but, the Death card switched to the “hopes/fears” position and the Tower was the outcome.

    My advice to her was NOT to go to this event. I just had a strong feeling it wouldn’t go well. She agreed and after she left, I spent a few minutes getting ready for bed, as it was the end of the day. Looking in the mirror to brush my teeth, I saw a welt on my neck as if someone had taken a pin and scratched a lop-sided five-pointed start on my skin. I went to my deck and asked the cards what this could mean. The basic message I remember was, “An omen. That which has been foretold will come to pass.” I called her immediately and said DEFINITELY do not go to that event no matter what.

    3-4 weeks later, after I’d forgotten about the reading, she came to my door rather frantic at 3am. She said she’d just came from the hospital. Her boyfriend had gone to the event and she faithfully did not attend. He had been drinking and driving and had been in a car accident. Turned out he was okay, no serious injuries and no fatalities, but the passenger side of the car had been completely caved in. She said, “Oh my god, you saved my life! They said I would have been killed if I had been in that passenger seat!”

    A bit dramatic, to say the least, but it’s an interesting story to relay when I tell people that only on very RARE occasions does the Death card actually mean death, but I stress that the other surrounding cards usually contribute to that determination, so there is nothing to be afraid of if they happen to see that card in their reading. It usually means the death of a situation or habit or a transformation in their life.

    Thanks again for the informative post, James! Have a great time at the Reader’s Studio Tarot event in New York!

    Brightest Blessings,
    Gina Candido

    • Wow, you have some great stories, Gina. Thanks for sharing this one.
      I can certainly see how the 10/S, Tower, and Death all in the same reading … and then in a repeat … would be really foreboding!
      And yes, “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler Ross is a great book.
      Bright Blessings,

  3. Great title and a fascinating topic! I number among those who have not sought a secular degree in psychology. I am not a state licensed psychotherapist and I am certainly not a medical doctor. I followed the spiritual path, eventually becaming ordained. I remember the first time I had mentioned this in passing during what I thought was a simple lunch break during a seminar. At one point the person with whom I was speaking look directly at me and asked, “What should I do?”

    That took me back somewhat. It reminded me of a book review I had read in which the author (a minister) remarked he wrote his book because he sometimes discovers he is in the middle of a “counseling session” and he hadn’t realized it!

    While I don’t think we are likely to be blind sided in this fashion when giving a Tarot reading, I find value in assuming an analytic approach when interpreting the reading. I engage the person in this fashion because I do see this as a form of spiritual counseling. I remind persons we always exercise our free will. Sometimes we are afforded an opportunity to bring about a change in circumstances we face. Sometimes not. But we always choose what we think, what we say, and how we act.

    And all of that to provide a book recommendation!

    “Pastorial Care Emergencies” by David K. Switzer

    “Listening & Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders” by John Savage

    “Strategies for Brief Pastorial Counseling” by Howard W. Stone

    With hope for health and healing,

    Rev. Erik WeaverSavage

    • Thank you for your thoughts and for the book recommendations, Erik.
      So true — Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we do choose how we react to our situation, or as you said, “we always choose what we think, what we say, and how we act.”
      Bright Blessings,

  4. Thank you James for your very kind comments, dear. On books, I agree that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross “On Death and Dying” is one that I recommend, along with “Who Dies?” By Stephen Levine.

    I also recommend any Mark Moody Books to clients who have children with terminal illness as that he did research about NDE and has a fabulous way to reach out to others.

    Also, “Many Lives, Many Masters”, I give to folks who are into metaphysics as that this was an actual psychiatrist who did the research (much to his amazement!).

    And for Christians I recommend “Leaves Of Gold” and “Mr God, this is Anna”, being a true story of a phenominal girl who dies before she reached 9 with a smile on her face, meeting Mr God.

    It depends on their spiritual backgound, of course. I also recommend The Tibetan Book of (Great Liberation) the Dead, by Evans-Wentz ed.

    And always, always send them with a telephone number to a local counseling agency and hospice as well. In any case, I am more than happy to discuss their views on death and also dicuss through reading texts how it can relate to them and their greif, but send them very firmly to Hospice, counseling and their local pastor, if they have one.

    I hope you don’t mind, James, I downloaded your comments, they simply were so wonderful, I gave a tear in response…Both my parents past three months ago, five days apart.

    My biggest hug,

    • Thanks for all your suggestions, Mary.
      No, of course, I don’t mind. I’m glad you liked them.
      And you have my deep sympathy for your loss. My father died a few years ago, so I know how hard it is to lose a parent, but to lose both practically at once must have been doubly difficult.
      Bright Blessings,

  5. The position of Death in the original Trionphi helps to explain its purpose, I believe. It’s the ultimate obstacle to “get past,” and then get on with one’s life. It is, I believe, also a reminder that death is all around us, or as the saying goes, “in the midst of life we are in death.” Did I quote that correctly? LOL.
    Thanks for the great columns!
    Denise (DyanaAset)

    • Hi Denise —
      Glad you’re enjoying them!
      And yes, that is the quote.
      Hope you come back often. 😀

  6. Hi James

    I love your blog:-)

    I don’t have all that much experience with reading for others, but one does come to mind in this context. A friend of mine was planning a trip to India late 2008 and asked me if it was a good time to go. I got every “negative” card in the deck i.e. Death, 10 of Swords, the Tower and the Page of Swords as the outcome card (to me, a warning to be on your guard). I could only imagine that something bad could happen at home while she was away (her mother is quite elderly and frail, and my friend runs her own business). I told her I was not sure what it all meant but it really did not look like a good time to go. At the exact time she would have been in India (Nov 2008), there were major terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

    Book recommendation: Journey of Souls by Dr Michael Newton


  7. P.S. Another book recommendation: I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

    • Helen, Thank you for the complement and the comments. And the book recommendations.
      Your story illustrates an excellent point — The future is not etched in stone. We can make choices that will either improve our condition or at least help us avoid the potholes in the road of life.

  8. Summer permalink

    Hi all, very good topic! I visited a tarot card reader about 2 weeks ago and drew below cards in given order:
    For general life: The Fool, King of Wands, Death
    For my job: The Moon, Ten of Wands, Nine of Pentacles
    Since, I got “Death” card you can see what I am doing here. I know that this card does not represent the actual meaning. However, in combination of other 5 cards, what do you think?
    I am not worried about the change but what if it has the literal meaning for someone I love? This is my only concern….
    By the way, it was my first tarot reading.

    • Hi Summer,
      Sorry, but I cannot do a reinterpretation of someone else’s reading. I wasn’t there to be part of the process or part of the energy of the reading.

  9. Summer permalink

    Thanks James. That card reader was more like a learner and my friend. She interpreted that I struggled a lot in my past, present is good and future is showing some big changes. As for the job, she said it is not a good time to search for a job and there is going to be a big financial gain soon. That’s it! But I got concerned after seeing this Death card…
    It is fine as I don’t want the reinterpretation of whole thing. I just hope that this particular card does not bring the sad news my way 😦
    Anyway, I appreciate you for your nice blogs. Thanks again!

    • Hi Summer,
      To reiterate, I can’t reinterpret anything about a reading I didn’t do… not even one card in the reading. But let me talk about that card in general since it is the most asked-about card:
      Everyone dies sooner or later (usually later), so of course no one can say that someone dear to you isn’t going to die. However, I can assure you that in my experience (and in that of everyone else I’ve ever talked to about this topic), about 99.9999% of the time the Death card does not (I repeat, NOT) indicate that someone is about to die. This card has a wealth of less-dire meanings as noted in the article and discussion above. (See also the section on the Death card in my Card Meanings page:
      By the way, this discussion points out why Tarot readings by novices should be taken with a grain of salt and (especially) why they should not use the Death card literally. (Kudos to your friend for not doing so.)

  10. courtney rhodes permalink

    I appreciate your post. i’ve read some conflicting views and although i never have foreseen death, i was disturbed at the cards i read for a friend. i interpreted them as an ending to a chapter of her life. thankfully the reading was done over the internet so she didn’t have to immediately freak out when i laid the cards out. Your article definitely took some of my anxiety away.

  11. What a great topic? Being a reader I have found for me personally I will not directly mention a death but find away to comfortably approach the subject of illness whether of the Querent or someone else close by, or the event of an accident or something that could provide danger to the querent. It totally depends on the cards surrounding the death card and what other messages I can be given. I feel it is important to be mindful of the querent and in how they will cope with such news.. I have had Querents come to me after being to another reader full of stress and worry about being told they will die at a certain age , or after an event. It has made the querent live life with anxiety and worry that feels unbearable on some stage, when looking at the cards again for querent and understanding why the Death card came up, it may be related to transformations, changes, yes an illness that needs to be looked at by a doctor, maybe even some counselling may be needed.. I found when in combination with the Hanged Man. But for me I feel it is important to be able to give solutions, allowing the querent to feel empowered on their Journey .. I did complete a Counselors Course for my own benefit when reading with Querents, in asking the right questions. I loved reading everyone’s responses to this article and found it insightful.. Thank you for sharing such great articles on the different cards .. Take care ..

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