Fearing the Reaper: Seriousness and Tarot

“My friend who reads told me that if you get the Death card, that’s actually good.” I’ve heard this so many times that perhaps the card ought to be renamed “Actually Good.”

“It’s actually just the card of change.” I could argue that Temperance next door is far more suited to this title, though in general, I’d say Tarot contains 78 cards of change.

And of course, sometimes I just get the classic, “is that good?”

Death is probably the most well known Tarot card: even in Marseilles decks where it is the Nameless, it is immediately recognized. Everyone already knows the Reaper. XIII is the one card that serves as the whole deck’s ambassador in lay conversation; everyone knows fortune tellers have death cards. It is through this cultural dialogue, along with the prevalence of positive thinking, that we end up with the seriousness of the arcanum’s meaning dulled today. This, of course, is manifested in a very famous Simpsons gag. It is quite funny, though I sometimes feel like I’m cleaning up after its devastating punchline.

Death can, because of all this, feel like the most boring card to pull, because for first-time querents, it inevitably requires the boilerplate speech. I do my best not to water it down, though. Something like: “if 1 in 78 pulls from this deck killed you, you would never touch it. But if it could tell you when a significant element in your life may be permanently lost, you’d be glad it told you to get your affairs in order.”

Why shouldn’t this card be frightening? Impermanence is terrifying. And perhaps, because of this, it is Actually Good that Death is the ambassador of Tarot, because it introduces at least three thresholds of seriousness that must be crossed for a perfect reading to occur.

The first threshold is a reader’s willingness to engage with Tarot. Are they willing to embrace all its mappings and complexities, even when they speak of suffering and mortality? Do they feel confident in their choice of spreads, the relationships between suits? Does the presence of Death hold them back?

The second threshold is a querent’s willingness to be read. Staring into raw possibility, will they choose to have their cards pulled, knowing they might recognize something true within them that they’re not ready to hear? Does the reputation of the art bother them? Does the presence of Death hold them back?

And then, there is the more complicated third threshold, which can only be crossed at the place and time that they meet: the reader has to be ready to talk to a stranger about their life in a meaningful way, and to not hold back on the difficult cards. Telling someone the Death card indicates a significant change in their life won’t do any good; telling them something irreplaceable will be lost will go further. The reader has to be ready to speak of these things, gently, even kindly, but without reservation. Does the presence of Death hold them back?

The best kind of reading crosses all three thresholds, with one person ready and able to be an agent of Magic, and another, willing to believe what it has to say.

The minimal Dreslyn Tarot indicates this seriousness with a terrifying touch:

In a deck of whimsical, sometimes pretentious design decisions and thin, monochrome vector lines on negative space, it serves as an interruption to the entirety of its structure. Concentrated negation, as if to say, “something else could have been here, but now, nothing is.” The deck prevents the reader from ignoring it; it’s a hole in the cards, one that could make itself known to the querent at any moment it chooses. It refuses to be anything less than what it is: the veil we cannot see past.

Death in Tarot should always be treated with that degree of respect, the guest who might arrive at any time, and must be accommodated. It is entirely understandable, even right sometimes to fear impermanence, but it still must be acknowledged.