We all wonder what we may see as the final curtain draws near and those last few moments of life pass us from one world to the next. But is there actually an agent of death that comes down and guides us to the final end? Or is this an image that is purely apocryphal in mythology? And how does it vary by culture?
The Angel of death and the Grim Reaper were both figures said to bring the living from our own world to the spiritual realm. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Archangel Michael is seen as the angel that takes spirits to Heaven. The Japanese have Izanami, the goddess of death who was consumed in a fire and swore vengeance on her husband by taking a thousand lives every day. The Yamaraj is said to take the souls of those who have died according to the Hindu faith. And finally we have the western secular image of death in mythology as a skeleton wrapped in a long dark cloak and holding a scythe. Death in this image has been accompanied by several token artifacts, including an hourglass for recording the sands of each person’s life and a book which contains the names of the dead (a more literal Necronomicon than Lovecraftian lore).
But has the creature ever made a real appearance to people either dying themselves or witnessing a spiritual transfer taking place? The former may not have very many who have lived to talk about it, but the latter has at least a few cases that have entered popular folklore and have been retold as urban legends. Generally the stories are the same, even if the dates occasionally change. A nurse walks into a room overlooking an elderly patient and sees the modern interpretation of death standing over the man. Death turns to look at the nurse and reveals only a skull beneath long black robes. A car passes by an accident and witnesses a tall hooded figure wielding a scythe approaching the car. As they draw closer they notice the hand holding the scythe is completely skeletal.
And yet billions more have died with no visible sighting of death. Most who have experienced a near death experience report feeling a sudden sense of peace and seeing a glowing light at the end of a tunnel, but do not report seeing a figure approaching and taking their soul. Of course maybe Out of Body experiences and NDEs manifest differently because the patient doesn’t actually die. Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel is actually the experience of very specifically ‘not dying’ when the body ceases to function.
Whatever its reality, the symbol of death – even if not the actual figure – is something that has thoroughly established itself in the minds of our culture. And though it may seem like a silly story to some, it’s understandable why others might at some point in time or another try to speculate on whether at the end of the line after a long life it will be a hooded and animate skeleton wielding a massive scythe or not that will take them by the hand and guide them to the next world.