Do I really need to explain why death is important to religion? Life, death, and the afterlife are key parts of any religion. That mysterious force that is death has perplexed humanity for… well, ever. Why do some people die while others live? And what part does God have in it all? Well, let’s look at my three favorite examples of Death as he/she is often personified in pop culture.
Check out the first appearance of Supernatural’s Death.
Man, doesn’t that video just give you chills.
The portrayal of Death in Supernatural is one of my favorites. Despite looking completely normal, if a bit skeletal, Death is clearly a wholly other being of great power. When Dean Winchester first meets Death it becomes very clear fighting Death will not be plausible. That becomes even more obvious when Dean actually talks to Death. Death describes how he is so powerful that to him Dean appears like nothing more than an ameba and even describes Lucifer, arguably one of the most powerful angels in exist as “a bratty child.” But Death’s power becomes even more obvious when he talks about God. He describes himself as being as old as God, maybe even older. He furthermore explains how in the end even God will die and he’ll reap God. And though it’s never shown in the TV series, it is implied that Death talks to God and knows where God is—God has been notably absent in the show. Death, like God, sees the big picture and understands how the world works. Because of his power and his ability to understand seemingly everything, Death appears as this indifferent larger-than-life figure.
Death spares Chicago because he likes the pizza, he pulls Sam’s soul from hell, but refuses to do the same for Adam, and seems to only do this because he wants something from Dean. The only person that Death seems particularly fond is actually God. When Dean, Sam, and Bobby bind Death to them in order to kill Castiel, who proclaimed himself god, Death doesn’t understand that they want him to kill the Castiel god and thinks that they want him to kill the God. Death tries to stall. He lies and says that he can’t, and when Castiel shows up calling himself god Death makes fun of him, calling him a “mutated angel” and says, “I know God, and you sir, are no God.”
I think the Death of Supernatural is portrayed as he is because he is based on humanity’s own feelings about death. Death is the awe-inspiring, impartial, unfeeling force in the universe, but for those of us with some spirituality we also have a sense that Death is part of something greater and more important. In this respect, Death in Supernatural is portrayed extremely well.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I’m not ashamed to say that Good Omens is perhaps my all-time favorite novels with one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Death, or I guess for these purposes we should call him DEATH. In this portrayal, DEATH is not impartial. DEATH is excited for the end of the world. It is described by him and the other horseman as waiting for Christmas or your birthday. At the end of the novel, the antichrist Adam faces down DEATH because he doesn’t want the world to end. DEATH wants the world to end and tries to convince Adam to follow along with his nature, but when Adam and his friends defeat the other horseman, DEATH grudgingly concedes that the apocalypse cannot continue, but makes of point of saying that he is not defeated.
BUT I, he said, AM NOT LIKE THEM. I AM AZRAEL, CREATED TO BE CREATION’S SHADOW. YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME. THAT WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD.
The heat of their stare faded. Adam scratched his nose.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “There might be a way.” He grinned back.
DEATH himself cannot be defeated and even the other horsemen seem to continue to exist in some form, but Adam implies that perhaps there is a way. I think this might be implying the idea that Christ defeats it in the act of his crucifixion and resurrection, or even the obvious fact that if DEATH does go through with the apocalypse there will either be Hell on earth or Heaven on earth, meaning that DEATH would no longer need to exist. In enacting the apocalypse, DEATH would actually be killing himself.
Neil Gaiman apparently owns my soul because he has another portrayal of Death that is my absolute favorite. Death in the Sandman Comics is very different for several reasons. First, unlike most portrayals of Death, this Death is a woman, shown as being a young attractive goth chick. She is also very different in the way that she functions. This Death is not distant, impartial, uncaring; she is invested in the world. She adds the spark of life to all babies when they are born and remembers them all, calling them by name when they die. She enjoys life and enjoys humanity and the many other creatures that inhabit the Sandman universe. She is often seen giving advice to her brother Dream and genuinely seems to care about everyone.
This Death is clearly a benevolent and caring one who understands the importance of Death, while understanding the fear and misunderstanding of Death that comes from those finite beings that can’t see the larger picture.
I hope all this talk about Death hasn’t depressed anyone. Personally, I find it extremely hopeful. This makes me think that though we humans fear our own death, we fear the death of everything just as much, while at the same time many people long for the end of days. Weird, right?
Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The End is Here
Tune in next time and find some religion!