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How Do I Recognize the Personification of Death?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The personification of death typically takes on a form that is associated with dying, and a number of images are fairly traditional among different cultures. One of the most common ways in which you might see death depicted is in human form, often as a skeleton wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe. Skeletons in general are associated with death and dying, as you can see in numerous artistic depictions and in the use of skulls to indicate poison. Other animals or objects associated with dying can also be used as a personification of death, so look for crows and vultures or swords and other weapons.

"Personification" is a process by which an abstract concept or idea is represented in a physical form, often in a humanized way. The personification of death is quite common, especially in artistic works, as it allows people to more easily face and come to terms with dying. Although different cultures can view death in various ways, the image of the "grim reaper" is among the most common depictions that you might find in Western civilization. This version of death usually includes a skeleton wearing a black cloak and wielding a scythe, sometimes holding an hourglass or other measurement of time.

The personification of death among various religions also tends to find its way into different artistic creations and cultural ideas. In Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, you can find frequent depictions of an "angel of death," frequently wielding a sword and sometimes described with many sets of wings and eyes. The view of this angel can be quite negative, often presented as a force of evil that takes away people's lives.

You can also see animals used as a personification of death, such as vultures and crows. These birds were often present at battlefields and would feed on carrion and dead soldiers, associating them with death and dying for many generations. Look for venomous and poisonous animals that represent death, since a bite or sting from such a creature has historically been deadly.

The personification of death can also take on unexpected forms, so look for creations that are purposefully intended as unusual. In the Sandman series of comic books by Neil Gaiman, for example, the character of Death is depicted as a young woman with a sense of humor and a jovial outlook on life. This personification of death is seen as a guide who helps the dead move from this world into an afterlife, rather than as a negative force that kills people. Such depictions have become increasingly common, so you may observe humor and a rational view of the dying process in modern personifications.

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Discussion Comments

By SarahGen — On Mar 22, 2014

How are vultures personification of death? Isn't personification when something takes on human characteristics? But a vulture isn't human, so technically, can we categorize this as personification?

The skeleton wearing a black cloak is definitely personification, but I would think that vultures and ravens are not.

What does everyone else here think?

By candyquilt — On Mar 21, 2014

When I think of death, I think of the angel of death. Films usually show the angel of death like a human wearing a black robe. But there is no face or it cannot be seen. Sometimes it is shown as a skeleton wearing a black robe.

This idea of death is embedded in my mind. In fact, I once had a serious accident and experienced dangerously low blood pressure in the ER. I was still conscious though and I remember seeing the image of the angel of death-- a tall, thin man like figure in a black robe, circling my hospital bed.

I know now that it was just a hallucination due to fear and the medicines I was given. But at that moment, I was sure that death had come to get me.

By burcinc — On Mar 21, 2014

It's interesting how different birds have come to be associated with death. Owl is another bird that many cultures associate with death. For example, in some Middle Eastern countries, it is believed that if an owl hoots on a roof for some time, someone from that household will die.

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