Understanding Tarot: Death

death tarot meaning
Tarot card art from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot Deck
This article is written by Tarot Reader, Claire Chilvers. You can find out more about her insights and readings at @ClaireChilversTarot

So here we are. We all knew it was coming because (whether we like it or not) number thirteen is an inevitable stop on our Fool’s Journey from number one to number twenty-one.

The unlucky number; the tarot card with the unforgiving name that, a large majority of people, dread to see when it shows up in a reading. 

Death.

So final, so frightening, so out of our control. It happens to us all, to our family, our friends, our pets, and even the nature that we enjoy watching out of our windows. Anything that lives, eventually dies. But we never really want to mention that, do we? 

Death. 

There – I said it again. It doesn’t get any easier does it?

The word staring at you on this page, alone, apart from all the other words. It makes us feel uncomfortable. No one wants to be the one to mention it, life is much better when we pretend it isn’t there. 

Over the years, when I have had this card appear in readings for clients, I have tried to calm down any over-reactions and panic when Death appears.

I have reminded them, as I am reminding you now, that ALL the cards are neutral and they have both negative and positive aspects in their teachings for us. 

The situation in the foreground of this picture looks bleak as Death strides triumphantly in to the scene, holding his flag taking all the people around him to the next part of their soul’s journey.

We see the destruction, the sadness, the frightening skeleton’s face, and the redness of the horse’s eyes. 

But, as I reassure clients that are scared by this, I draw their attention to the Sun in the distance, promising a new dawn, and the familiar pillars either side of it that we have seen on previous cards, and will see again, linking the turmoil of this card to the long term path they are walking. 

I remind clients that Death doesn’t always mean an actual death, it can signify any ending in our life, be it the end of a relationship, job, friendship or any way of life that we can no longer be part of.

This symbolism of transformation is shown in the white rose on the flag with its five points signifying change.

But, as I have now got to the point of this journey where I am having to write about this card, I am beginning to question whether that was the right approach. Whether by playing down the message of Death is doing this card, and the Tarot, a disservice.

By doing my best to remind clients of the positives is not always helpful. Letting my human self take over and that age-old tradition of trying to avoid talking about death in its true form is not always the best policy. 

So, let us look at the negatives of Death which we work so hard to avoid. The emotion and situations that it brings when it enters into our lives. The turmoil which is depicted in this card by the chaotic bodies cluttered around him.

The injustice we see as the innocent child holding up flowers to Death is one of his chosen to be taken away. The cruel irony shown as the holy man who prays for his soul is one of Death’s victims.

The warning that money and status are no match for Death as a King lies sprawled out before him with his crown cast into the mud. And as we notice the innocent young maiden who kneels before him accepting her fate we see that some people are willing to be taken by Death long before their time. 


And what happens to those of us who are left behind? The ones that have escaped this scene but have been drawn in to witness it? Those who have seen the horror and destruction a visit from death can cause, but are left behind to pick up the pieces? 

Uncontrollable grief, denial, anger, sadness, despair, and a gaping hole where a much-cherished part of our life used to be for some. But, for others, a release, a feeling of closure and acceptance of something that was inevitable or perhaps they were waiting for, which is interjected with feelings of guilt and regret. 

It is no wonder most people would prefer not to see this in a reading or in their journey of life. 

But, this finality and turmoil shows up more times than we realise. It does not have to be an actual death that it depicts.

These emotions can be evoked by the end of a relationship, the end of an important era in your life (for instance a child starting university is a feeling of loss to the parents and a feeling of the ‘end’ of a childhood for the young adult in their unfamiliar surroundings).

A sudden and unexpected redundancy can cause grief and anguish, a house move or relocation to another country may be an exciting new start but will have a finality about it that will cause you to accept every aspect of your daily routine will now be changed forever and, of course, how can we ignore the prominent and constant reminder of Death as we all struggle to come to terms with the new way of life we are living due to the global pandemic that is forever lurking in our minds at the moment.

Death has the power to take our breath away (in the literal sense) but, also leave us here on earth winded and gasping for breath whilst we are struggling to come to terms with the consequences of a huge change in our life.

At the times when our world and head seem like they are spinning out of control and we feel like the pinball in a machine ricocheting from one place to another at the mercy of someone else pushing the buttons we have to remember – this is not the end.

We have to carry on and remind ourselves, that if we are facing Death, like the Fool who is still walking his journey through life, there is still far more to see, far more to achieve, and more opportunities to grow and learn.

Whatever happens when Death appears is only part of our journey – it is not what defines us nor is it a place where we have to stay forever. We will move on. We will keep going.

Death is not the last card in the Major Arcana, we still have eight more cards to go as we follow the Fool on his journey through life.

The Universe knows that the mature and knowledgeable Fool is well-equipped to deal with this monumental curveball. Even if he doesn’t realise it himself, he has the tools and abilities to cope.

As I am writing this I am reminded of the film ‘Sleepless In Seattle’, when Tom Hanks’ character, Sam, is asked what he is going to do as he struggles to rebuild his life and raise a child alone after his wife has passed away.

His response was he was just going to remind himself to breathe in and out and continue to do that every day until he doesn’t have to remind himself to do it anymore. 

I think that sums up our human reaction to this card very well. There are positives in our life-changing completely, but, for some it may take a little time to see it.

We can be reassured that, on some level, (which we may not be able to comprehend at the time) the Death card is a reminder that we have the opportunity to prove to ourselves that we can cope with whatever life throws at us, and stay true to ourselves and continue on our life path.

But whilst we are in the midst of the turmoil, uncertainty and the emotive reactions of change, we need to be kind to ourselves to and remember just to breathe in and out every day, until we don’t have to remind ourselves to do so.

About the author

Claire Chilvers

Claire Chilvers is a writer and tarot reader and lives in Essex, UK. She offers tarot readings to clients in the UK and around the world via video calls (Skype usually), if you would like a reading please contact her at clairechilverstarot@yahoo.com.