Eighty-five-year-old twins from Brooklyn are setting off on what they say will be their final voyage. Their plan to die at sea has an undeniable romance
The endlessness of the sea offers an eternal alternative. Perhaps if we just pushed off into it, we could escape death itself – as if its amniotic waters might be a return to a universal womb. After all, the sea is where we came from in the first place. There’s a definite romance to saying goodbye to the land, and setting sail for that last adventure.
Van and Carl Vollmer, 85-year-old twins from Brooklyn, certainly think so. The brothers are about to embark on the handsome 158ft, three-masted barquentine, the Peacemaker, on a round-the-world voyage in search of remote islands and sunken galleons, from the Panama Canal to the Great Barrier Reef, the Philippines, and on to the Mediterranean.
In order to get there, the pair – who currently live on a powerboat moored on City Island – have bill-posted Brooklyn’s hipster district of Williamsburg with an enticing proposition: “Brooklyn sea captain seeking crew!” They’re advertising for a 12-strong, able-bodied crew of men and women, including a mechanic, deckhand, cook, nutritionist and an aquaponic gardener to grow vegetables on top of fish tanks – a kind of hip 21st-century version of Ahab’s crew on the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. They’ll even get suitably retro uniforms of old-fashioned sailor pants with 13 buttons and yellow-and-white striped shirts. I’m guessing they’ll all have beards already.
But instead of a demented captain suicidally spearing a great white whale, the Vollmer twins are instructing their shipmates that when the time comes, they’ll be glad to go over the side. “To swim with the fishes for eternity”, as Van Vollmer says. “We want to spend the rest of our lives on this boat”, Carl adds. “We want to get thrown overboard”. Melville, who lived and died by the New York waterfront, would approve of such wild ambition. Having ended his own life as an ageing customs inspector on the Manhattan wharves looking out longingly to sea, the great writer probably wished he had done the same. Indeed, it’s a scene reminiscent of his last, elegiac seafaring tale, Billy Budd, whose protagonist ends up consigned to the deep: “…roll me over fair! / I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”
But not everyone is happy about the Vollmers’ intentions. At least one crew member, Steven, chosen by the twins as their first mate, is equivocal about this duty. “Van kind of brings it up and he’s like, ‘I want to teach you everything I know so when you dump me into the sea you can take over.’ I’m hoping that’s just some kind of expression. It’s not something I really want to think about.”
Not going gently into the good night but raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas recommended, has a long maritime tradition. It is an ambition peculiarly suited to the sea – particularly in our fractured archipelago of the British Isles. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Mr Peggotty, the Yarmouth fisherman, says of his brother-in-law Mr Barkis as he lies dying: “People can’t die, along the coast … except when the tide’s pretty nigh out … He’s going out with the tide. It’s ebb at half-arter three, slack water half-an-hour. If he lives till it turns, he’ll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide.” Nowadays, anyone hoping to swim with the fishes in eternity without going to the bother of sailing into the blue yonder can opt for burial at sea off the Isle of Wight, in a designated zone.
Meanwhile, the modern Odysseus takes to the ocean liner. Wealthy wanderers of a certain age have sold up on land to live at sea in permanently rented suites. A somewhat ominous-sounding company called Utopia caters to those who intend to spend the rest of their lives on the briny, while US websites discuss the practicalities, pondering, “Is cruise ship retirement cheaper than assisted living?”.
Beatrice Muller thought so. After her husband died on the QE2 as it sailed out of Bombay in 1999, she announced her intention to live on the liner till the end of her days, paying £3,500 a month for the privilege. Unfortunately for Mrs Muller, she outlasted the ship; it went into retirement in 2008. And although the stalwart senior citizen continued to defy the land – “I’ll keep on staying at sea”, she said, aged 89, “I don’t want to go back to housekeeping” – sadly, she seems to have ended up in a retirement home in New Jersey.
As someone who swims in the sea every day, I’ve often considered it as my last resting place; that like Barkis, I might be taken out with the tide. After all, I wouldn’t be using up valuable land space, or contributing to climate change. It sounds almost idyllic. “Full fathom five my father lies”, as Ariel sings in The Tempest, “Of his bones are coral made”, transformed “into something rich and strange”. But then I think of how lonely it might be, nibbled away by crawling slimy things where “the very deep did rot”, as the fated Ancient Mariner saw it. And would I really want to be recycled by lobsters, to end up in the food chain? Perhaps it’s not such a reassuring thought after all.
JJ the dog has a very special job. She’s a therapy dog who spends a lot of her time comforting patients at a hospice in Oregon. Recently, JJ’s mom, nurse Tracy Calhoun, posted a video one of JJ’s therapy sessions to Facebook.
It shows JJ comforting a patient who, sadly, does not receive many visitors. Her time with the pup is very precious. In the video, they spend their time sharing snuggles and listening to a poem by W.B. Yeats.
JJ’s mom translated the pup’s dog thoughts on Facebook:
“She cannot see and often does not wake up, but she did like having her hand on my fur. She was very calm during my visit. We were listening to Yeats, by the way. I was very insistent to have her touch me, more so than usual. We fell asleep later with her hand splayed on my head, both of us snoring.”
Char Barrett walked into a quaint cafe in Seattle with business in mind.
Over the smell of coffee and freshly baked tarts, she was going to advise a client on how best to host a special event at her home, helping coordinate everything from the logistics of the ceremony, to how to dress the guest of honor. People might cry, they might laugh, and all attention would be on the person of the hour—only that person would never see, hear, or enjoy the festivities, because they would be dead.
“People looked at me like I had two heads when I said, ‘Keep the body at home after the person dies,’” says Barrett, a Seattle-based funeral director and certified “death midwife.” “For families who want it, they should have the right to do it.”
Barrett has been practicing home funerals in the area since 2006 through her business, A Sacred Moment. In a home funeral service, the body is either brought back to the family from the place of death or stays at home if the person died there. The family then washes the body, in part to prepare it for viewing and in part as a ritual.
“It’s really the way we used to do it,” says Barrett.
To Barrett and many other professionals who are offering alternatives to the more status-oriented, profit-driven funeral industry, it’s time to rethink how we handle death. From consumer cooperatives that combat price gouging, to putting the power of choice back in the hands of the family, the city of Seattle has become a hub for alternative death care in the last two years, according to Barrett. The subculture of “deathxperts” want not only to empower their clients, but also potentially phase out their jobs altogether—a sort of death of the funeral director as we know it.
A History of Death
For the majority of human history, families handled arrangements for the deceased, from the time immediately after death, to burial or cremation. Until the advent of modern hospitals and health care at the turn of the last century, it was the norm for the old and sick to die at home surrounded by loved ones.
During the Civil War, embalming as a form of preservation found a foothold when Union soldier casualties needed to be transported from the sweltering South to mourning families in the North. Today, its pragmatic purpose is to temporarily stop decomposition for viewing and final goodbyes. However, the overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers don’t realize that, in most cases, it’s not legally required to bury a body, although special circumstances vary from state to state.
So why has probably every American funeral you’ve been to had an embalmed body in attendance?
As 20th century consumerism took hold and people were more likely to die in a hospital than at home, death receded from public consciousness. If a loved one were to die today, you would probably call and pay a funeral home to pick her up from wherever she took her last breath. They would wash her, embalm her, and dress her to your family’s liking. You would briefly visit her one last time at a mortuary or a chapel before she was either buried or burned. In all likelihood, her last bodily contact before disposition would be with a complete stranger.
In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” an exposé of the country’s funeral-industrial complex, showing how it exploited the emotions of the living so it could up-sell unnecessary services and products, such as premium caskets and premier vaults. Federal Trade Commission regulations and consumer protections now prevent families from being swindled.
Today, the funeral industry has become managed in part by aggregate companies. Mortuary giant Service Corporation International owns a large network of individually operated funeral homes and cemeteries, some of which exist on the same property as combination locations. If you imagine a standard funeral parlor and graveyard, you’re probably picturing an SCI-owned operation. Of the approximately 19,400 funeral homes in America, the publicly traded company owns about 2,300 homes, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association. Families and individuals privately own most of the rest.
“The reality is that if you can’t adapt to compete with SCI, you probably shouldn’t be in the market,” says Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation and Burial, which prides itself in being Seattle’s “only green funeral home.” “But SCI is one of the best competitors you could ever hope for because they’re slow to change and they’re exceptionally resistant to anything progressive.”
Jorgenson started his business in 2012 with a special focus on carbon-neutral cremations and “green” embalming using eco-friendly preservatives. In every aspect of his operation, he works to be as environmentally minded as possible, an objective he sees lacking in most business models.
As SCI spent the 1960s through 1990s acquiring independent funeral homes to maximize profits, another organization was doing the exact opposite by forming a collective to prioritize consumer rights.
People’s Memorial Association is one of the nation’s only nonprofit organizations that pushes consumer freedom for end-of-life arrangements. Located in Seattle, the consumer membership-based group coordinates with 19 different death care providers across the state to offer fixed-price burial, cremation, and memorial services, as well as education and advocacy to encourage death care alternatives. Almost all of the funeral homes are privately owned and have a uniform price structure for PMA members, who contribute a one-time fee of $35. Barrett’s A Sacred Moment is one of PMA’s partners.
“We negotiate contracts with the funeral homes so members walk in knowing exactly what they’re going to pay, and it’s usually a pretty significant discount from the usual prices,” says Nora Menkin, the managing funeral director of the Co-op Funeral Home. PMA founded it in 2007 when SCI decided to cancel arrangements with several of PMA’s partners. Now, PMA-contract homes offer full-service funerals for 65 percent less than the average local price, according to a 2014 price survey conducted by the PMA Education Fund.
“There’s no sales pressure, there’s no up-selling, and we make sure people get what they need,” says Menkin. “It’s about the consumer telling us what they want.”
Jorgenson’s Elemental Cremation and Burial works outside the umbrella of PMA’s service providers, but he still finds allies in Menkin and the Co-op Funeral Home.
“We’re in it to change an industry,” he says. “Just one of our voices out there is useless. There’s a kinder, gentler, less expensive way, and that’s what we’re all doing. It’s helping families in a new, more collaborative way.”
In Jorgenson’s opinion, you don’t even really need a funeral director.
“A funeral director is a wedding planner on a compressed time scale,” he says. “With the exception of the legality of filing a death certificate, a funeral director does the exact same things a wedding planner does: They make sure that the venue is available, that the flowers are ordered, the chaplain is there for the service, and that the guest of honor, be it the bride or the dead person, is there on time.”
In Washington state, some of the only legal requirements are preservation of the body 24 hours after death by way of embalming or refrigeration, obtaining a signed death certificate, and securing a permit for disposition of the deceased.
If the body will be kept at home for longer than 24 hours, preservation can be achieved by putting the body on dry ice for the duration of the viewing. Once the family has had enough time with the person, he or she will be removed for final disposition, which includes burial, cremation, or scientific donation.
“A funeral director that is truly in earnest with the services they’re providing these families would have the courage to say that,” says Barrett. “A family can do this themselves. They don’t need a licensed funeral director, especially in the 41 states where legally a family is able to sign their own death certificate.”
Even families who still want the guidance of a professional shouldn’t feel powerless.
“Too many people go to funeral homes and just want to be told what to do, because they haven’t been through it or they don’t want to think about it. That gives the funeral homes way more power than they really deserve,” says Menkin.
Ideally, a funeral home should educate consumers and encourage them to make informed decisions, she says, ultimately just acting as an agent to carry out their wishes.
For almost every modern funeral home preparation procedure, there is a more sustainable alternative. Dry ice can offset the need for embalming for brief viewing or shipping purposes. In instances where some form of embalming is necessary, such as a violently traumatic death, a mix of essential oils can replace the toxic mix of tinted formaldehyde. Even in the case of burial, biodegradable shrouds can eliminate the need for wood and metal caskets built, in theory, to last forever.
The distinctions apply to cemeteries too, which are divided into several camps as outlined by the Green Burial Council, the industry authority on sustainability. It assigns funeral homes, cemeteries, and suppliers a rating based on strict environmental impact standards, which scrutinize everything from embalming practices to casket material.
There are traditional cemeteries with standard graves, monuments, mausoleums, and often water-intensive grass landscaping. The next step up are hybrid cemeteries, which still may have regular plots, but also offer burial options that don’t require concrete vaults, embalming, or standard caskets. Natural burial grounds, the middle rank, prohibit the use of vaults, traditional embalming techniques, and burial containers that aren’t made from natural or plant-derived materials; landscaping must incorporate native plants to harmonize with the local ecosystem, conserve energy, and minimize waste. Premier green burial occurs on conservation burial grounds, which in addition to meeting all of the above requirements, requires partnership with an established conservation organization and be dedicated to long-term environmental stewardship.
Natural and conservation burial grounds must limit the use and visibility of memorials and headstones so as to preserve the native visual landscape as much as possible. Some properties have switched to GPS-based plot markers—visitors wouldn’t know they’re in the middle of a cemetery unless they were looking for it.
As consumers become more comfortable with taking charge of their dead, there will be more room to introduce new methods of body disposition, such as alkaline hydrolodis, a type of liquid cremation, and body composting. Earlier this year, supporters successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign to start research on the Urban Death Project, which aims to turn decomposing bodies into nutrient-rich soil. According to Jorgenson, sustainable burial practices are still part of a boutique market, though that doesn’t change his bottom line.
“Death is difficult. People don’t really want to experiment with mom,” he says. “But I count myself fortunate to be out there as one of the people that offers these alternatives, should someone want them.”
“The co-op movement is bigger in other countries,” says Menkin, who attended the 2014 International Summit of Funeral Cooperatives in Quebec. “Canada has a large network of funeral cooperatives, but it’s a bit more like a traditional funeral industry, just with a different business model. They’re not about alternative forms of disposition or changing the norm. We’re kind of writing the book on this one.”
Eventually, those conversations may become commonplace.
“Now when I mention home funerals to people, they don’t think anything of it,” says Barrett. To her, the time has come for people to think outside the box—literally.
Jewish hospice chaplains confront the emotional and medical complexities of death and dying every day, but Holocaust survivors present special challenges.
Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman, director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, said that chaplains are increasingly being called on to provide spiritual support to survivors and their families.
“There are a lot of complex issues,” said Freedman, who has worked in end of life chaplaincy for 23 years. “One of them is making the decision of unhooking hydration – much more complex for a Holocaust family. The idea of not providing nutrition is crossing a sacred or not understood emotional line.”
Survivor guilt and mixed feelings at the prospect that they may “meet their relatives on the other side” commonly surface, he said.
Rabbi Charles Rudansky, director of Jewish clinical services at Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s hospice in New York, reported similar experiences with Holocaust survivors he had counseled.
“Last time they saw their loved ones was hellish, hellish, hellish, and now they’re crossing that bridge,” said Rudansky.
Some Holocaust survivors are apprehensive at that prospect, he said, while others are “uplifted.” A usually talkative person may fall silent, while a quiet person may suddenly have a lot to say.
“I’ve been called in by Holocaust survivors who only want to speak with me so some human ears will have heard their plight,” said Freedman.
Jan Kellough, a counselor with Sivitz Jewish Hospice and Palliative Care in Pittsburgh, said she encourages, but never pushes, survivors to share their stories. While it can be therapeutic for some survivors to talk about the Holocaust, she said, it is problematic for others.
For some survivors, “there’s an attitude of not wanting to give up, there’s a strong will to fight and survive,” said Kellough.
Children and grandchildren of survivors can also struggle to cope with their loved ones’ terminal illness, said Rudansky.
He said such people tell the hospice staff, “’My grandfather, my father survived Auschwitz. You can’t tell me they can’t survive this!’ They have great difficulty in wrapping their heads around this is different — this is nature.”
That difficulty can be compounded by the fact that children of survivors may not have had much contact with death in their lives, said Rabbi David Rose, a hospice chaplain with the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville, Maryland.
Because so many of their family members were wiped out in the Holocaust, children of survivors may be less likely to have experienced the death of a grandparent or aunt or uncle.
“That’s one of the benefits of hospice. We work with them and their families to help them accept their diagnosis,” said Kellough.
Hospice offers families pre-bereavement counseling, 13-months of aftercare and access to preferred clergy.
Special sensitivity is paid to spouses who are also survivors.
“Survivor couples, particularly if they met before the war or just after the war are generally exceptionally protective of each other,” said Rose. “A few different couples come to mind – every time I visited, the partner was sitting right next to their spouse, holding hands the whole visit.”
Freedman underscored that chaplains are trained not to impose their religious ideas on families, but rather to listen to the patient and family’s wishes.
“I tell the people I train that if you’re doing more [than] 30 percent [of the] talking in the early stages of the relationship, then you’re doing it wrong,” said Freedman.
“Seventy percent of communication is coming from your ears, your eyes, your smile — not your talking. Rabbis tend to be loquacious, we’re talkative,” he said. “But when I’m with a family, I am an open book for them to write on.”
Though the work is emotionally demanding, Freedman said, “Helping people through natural death and dying is one of the most rewarding things people can do.”
In Appalachian culture, a bizarre phenomenon of feather crowns found in the pillows of sick people became known as an omen of death.
By J. Nathan Couch
Feather pillows are about as rare the Loch Ness Monster, but once upon a time they were as common as could be.
Long ago, the people of Appalachia began to notice a peculiar phenomenon: odd crownlike masses in the pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.
These objects became known as Death Crowns (or less-commonly, angel crowns). Death Crowns are usually elaborate, interlocking designs that resemble a disc or crown. The quills always point inward, and though rare, are only found in the feather pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.
Because of the isolated, rural nature of the area, the phenomenon appears to be unique to Appalachia, or locations where some of these mountain folk migrated, such as Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio. But it’s almost exclusively a lost-belief now that most people have switched out their feather pillows for comfort foam or synthetic fibers.
I was fortunate enough to overhear a death crown story in my youth, otherwise I’d likely be unaware such a concept ever existed. My family has lived in Hall County, Georgia for generations, just miles from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
My great aunt paid us a visit when I was maybe 5 years old. She started talking about the recent death of her elderly father. He’d been killed while walking around a bus he’d just exited. A car sped by without caution, striking the old man. She was elected the sorrowful chore of sorting through her father’s belongings. As she lifted her father’s ancient feather pillow she felt something solid inside. She started to throw the pillow away, but something compelled her to open it up. She reached inside and probed with her fingers in search of what she had felt. To her astonishment, she pulled out an intricately woven wreath of feathers, roughly the size of a bird’s nest. She took this has a sign her father had gone to heaven.
After several minutes of convincing, she persuaded me to go play. After a while, I forgot about the whole thing—until bed of course. I recall squeezing and kneading my pillow in search of anything that might remotely feel like a “death wreath.” I didn’t. Finally, I fell asleep.
These odd formations are usually interpreted as a heavenly sign, but skeptics believe that the movements of a dying person—tossing and turning combined with fever sweats–could cause these objects to take form.
If you are one of the few that still sleeps on feather pillow, do not lose all hope if you find a Death Crown in your pillow tonight. One old wives’ tale claims that if you break these wreaths up you could prevent the death of the person the pillow belongs to.
A collection of these oddities can be found at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee.
When Ally Mosher’s grandfather died, the experience was far from peaceful. His death in hospital after a series of strokes was “chaotic and traumatic and something my grandmother knew she didn’t want for herself”.
After clearly expressing her wishes, Ms Mosher’s grandmother Margaret Butler died quietly at the age of 94 last month. She was in her own bed, in comfort and surrounded by close family members.
“Knowing what she wanted made it a lot easier for us,” Ms Mosher said. “We knew she wanted us to be there when she passed and my mum was holding her hand. It sounds like an odd thing to say but it was a perfect death.”
While we are familiar with the idea of living well, the idea of dying well is relatively new but one gaining momentum in the wider community.
Ms Mosher, a graphic designer from Hazelbrook, uses her own experience to promote “death literacy” although she admits not everyone is comfortable with the subject.
“There is a social stigma about death,” she said. “You can’t talk about death in a healthy, positive way. If you are talking about death you must be weird or morbid.”
Community group The Groundswell Project has spent the past five years creating wider awareness about dying to help overcome reluctance to address the issue.
The group has come up with 10 things people need to know about death, with workshops on the topic to be launched in conjunction with Dying to Know Day on August 8.
The Groundswell Project’s director, Kerrie Noonan, a clinical psychologist specialising in palliative care, found most people sought practical advice about death.
“People really wanted more information about the nuts and bolts stuff,” she said. “What do I need to tell my family? How do I approach the subject with them?”
A report by The Grattan Institute published last year found found that dying in Australia was more institutionalised than the rest of the world, with the majority of people dying in hospital or a residential care facility.
“We’re not around death,” Ms Noonan said. “Death is removed; it takes place in a hospital or a hospice. We don’t have a context for having conversations about death.”
Things to know before you go:
1. Make a plan. Fewer than 5 per cent of people have an end of life plan.
2. Write a will. Only 55 per cent of people who die have a will.
3. Tell someone what you want. Of those who know they are dying, only 25 per cent will have spoken to their families about their wishes.
4. Only 30 per cent of deaths are unexpected. Make a decision about how you want to die while you have time.
5. Doctors don’t die like the rest of us. They are more likely to die at home with less invasive intervention at the end of their lives.
6. Earlier referral to palliative care means living longer with better quality of life.
7. You don’t need a funeral director. DIY funerals are becoming more popular.
8. The majority of Australians choose cremation but there are alternatives including natural burial, burial at sea or donating your body for research.
9. We don’t grieve in stages. Only 10 per cent of us need professional support after a death.
10. 60 per cent of people think we need to spend more time talking about death.
The Grim Reaper or the “Angel of Death” is a conceptual entity that is depicted as pale skeletal figure in a long black cloak with a hood, and scythe in hand. Throughout the history of mankind, the concept of death as an omnipotent entity has had a significant impact on human psyche. This article throws some light on the origin and history of the Grim Reaper and the myths and stories associated with this psychopomp.
The Grim Reaper is a diabolically dark figure that has captured the imagination of many people around the world! Was he the answer that man found to his questions about the death and dying? This entity features in folklore and movies. The scythe that he wields symbolizes the weapon of the harvester or keeper of souls. It is believe that this entity escorts souls of the deceased to the unknown territory of life after death. While some believe that he arrives on an old coach drawn by white horses, others believe he arrives on a single horse, without any coaches. His skeletal face bears a grim expression that successfully haunts a number of people, instilling the never-ending fear of death and departure.
Many religions believe a particular spirit or deity is responsible to look after the souls after the death of a person. The Grim Reaper is considered this psychopomp who performs his duties of carrying souls of the dead to the world of the nonliving. In ancient Greek mythology, Charon was such an entity, who carried the souls of the recently deceased in a ferry across the river that separated the world of the living from the dead. Similarly, there are different mythological and religious entities that come from different cultures and beliefs from all over the globe, that somehow link with the origin of the personification of death in the form of the Grim Reaper.
Legend of the Grim Reaper: Folklore, Myths, and Beliefs
Although there are different accounts of the manifestation of death, the Grim Reaper has become a conceptual personification of death the world over. The presence of this nightmarish entity has captured the imagination of storytellers, writers and artists. The following sections will brief you about some notable instances or entities in history, that will help understand the story behind the emergence of the Grim Reaper.
The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse
As mentioned earlier, Death is identified as the fourth horseman of which the Bible says in the Book of Revelation (6:1-8). The following excerpt has been taken from the English Standard Version.
When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Although the scripture doesn’t call death, “the Grim Reaper”, nor does it say about it wearing a black-hooded cloak holding scythe, it does act as a link to the depiction of the Grim Reaper riding a pale horse. If you carefully observe the image on the right, you would see the fourth horseman on the extreme left, riding a pale and skinny horse, and is himself quite the same, giving an almost skeleton-like look. However, as mentioned earlier, various artists have depicted this horseman in a skeleton figure, some of them include, John Haynes after John Hamilton Mortimer in his 1784 painting “Death on a Pale Horse”, and Victor Vasnetsov in his 1887 painting, “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”.
In Mythology and Folklore
Figure of Death in Breton Mythology
The ultimate symbolism of the Grim Reaper is death. In Greek mythology, Thanatos is the deity associated with death, who was the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The portrayal of Thanatos isn’t scary and intimidating. He is depicted as a pleasant-looking young man with wings and a sword. This simply shows that the Greeks did not see death as something horrific, but accepted it as a part of life.
In Breton mythology, and Cornish and Norman French folklore, death was personified as Ankou. His depiction is quite similar to that of the image of the Grim Reaper today. He is believed to appear as a man or a skeleton who wears a black cloak and wields a scythe. Alternately, some legends also state him to be like a shadow that seems to be of an old man wearing a hat. Legend has it that four black horses pulled his cart which helped him carry the souls of the deceased.
It is believed by some that the Grim Reaper has originated from the legend of Ankou. However, there are others that claim this notion to be untrue, considering that the Grim Reaper is a somewhat recent depiction of death, as explained in the next section.
The Black Death
Although life and death are the inseparable and inevitable part of this world’s existence, it was not always that death was personified as a scythe-bearer who wears a hooded cloak and carries souls to the afterlife. If we browse through the medieval history and the events that took place in it, it can be concluded that a lot about the figure of death as a skeleton can be linked with the massive deaths that occurred between the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century―infamously known as The Black Death. The plague came in various forms in different cities, wiping out a significant percent of the population. Because of the plague being highly contagious, priests refused to perform last rites, resulting in unburied death bodies. Considering the frightening environment, where everyone feared being affected with this pandemic, it was only natural for people to view death as a skeletal figure, as the amount of corpses in the vicinity were overwhelming.
This pandemic was named ‘Black Death’ because the victims were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and puss. Also, the skin of the victim became black and gangrenous. Black is also the color that is worn in funerals and deaths. Hence, was natural for the artists of that era to see death coming in the color black. While initially, tools such as crossbow, ax, or dart was shown as death’s weapon, gradually it was replaced with a scythe, and many artists portrayed death, or the Grim Reaper, using this tool to mow souls. This is shown in the image on the right, where the Grim Reaper is shown mowing the souls of people who died due to cholera during the Balkan War. These pandemics in different forms depict that the taker of souls comes in different times, through different means, to take its assignment to deliver souls to their rightful place, at the right time.
The Gender of the Grim Reaper
There has been an ongoing debate of the Grim Reaper being a male or a female. First off, being a symbol of death, it is unlikely for it to have a gender. While mostly, this psychopomp is depicted as a male, there have been legends associated with death being a female. For instance, in Poland, death is a female word Śmierć and is believed to be an old skeletal woman, whose appearance is quite similar to that of the traditional Grim Reaper. However, death wears a white robe, not black.
Also, in Scandinavian mythology, death is considered to be an old and ugly woman, who especially came into the picture during the Black Plague. It is said that this old lady came with either a broom or a rake and wore a black robe. The days she brought a broom, all would die in the area, while some would escape death when she carried a rake. A similar belief was prevalent in Lithuanian mythology, where death was called Giltinė who was an old, ugly woman with a long blue nose and a poisonous tongue. In both regions, this depiction of death, later evolved as the Grim Reaper wearing a black robe and holding a scythe.
Well, the whole concept of “Life After Death” is well beyond the realm of physical world, and no one has ever ventured back to tell us whether there is such an entity as the Grim Reaper in reality or not, and the fact if this entity is a male or a female! While some people consider it to be nothing more than a myth, a scary fictional character perhaps, the concept of Grim Reaper is a chilling reminder, and teaches us that the death is a reality that we all must face, and that it might just say hello when we expect it the least. Complete Article HERE!