Death Isn’t a Person

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We all anthropomorphize. I talk to my cat, Holmes, about things he can’t possibly understand. He seems to talk back, although that just means he and I are united in incomprehension. Also affection, I think.

A better example is idol worship – golden calves and the like – although, often as not, the idol is simply a stand-in for what the worshippers believe is a living, though disembodied, spirit.

Anyway, I was surprised recently to read this headline in a news story:

Pope Francis: ‘Even death trembles when a Christian prays’

Do Catholics believe death is a person?

Only a living thing – the devil, for instance – can tremble. Sometimes when he is asleep and dreaming, Holmes’ paws move and he whimpers. He trembles.

But death can’t tremble, because death isn’t a sentient being – not a being at all.

Death has often been personified as an ominous, shrouded figure carrying a scythe with which to cut the cord of life. But that’s fantasy.

It is tempting, though, to imagine death as a person: the Grim Reaper. A dozen years ago, I wrote here about my favorite film, Death Takes a Holiday, which uses that conceit: the shrouded figure comes to the home of a 1930s aristocrat, Duke Lambert, and strikes a deal to delay taking the man’s life in exchange for a weekend in Lambert’s villa during which he’ll inhabit the body of one Prince Sirki, recently deceased. It’s a wonderful story. While Sirki is there, no one dies. No one. Anywhere.

But again: fantasy.

The pope, however, seemed to be referring to a creaturely reality:

Even death trembles when a Christian prays, because it knows that everyone who prays has an ally stronger than it has: the Risen Lord. . . . [A]nd the day will come when everything will be final, and it will no longer scorn our life and our happiness. [boldface added, of course]

Only a reasoning creature can tremble, know, have, or scorn. And death isn’t a creature.

The pope’s defenders will argue that he was speaking casually, as he so often does, and, therefore, wasn’t really suggesting that death is a person. Maybe he said “death” but meant “devil.” But one simply cannot imagine popes before him, especially his two most-recent predecessors, making such an oral error. Those defenders may say I’m being churlish for drawing attention to a lapse of logic and doctrine in an off-the-cuff comment by the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps I am. I’m a person after all.


It would be a more serious matter, of course, were His Holiness to propose another change to the Catechism, redefining Death along the lines of Catholic doctrine concerning Satan: “The power of Death is not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature.”

But that won’t happen. Death is simply a negation and no more animate than the minus sign in an elementary-school subtraction problem.

I’ve played with the fantasy of a living Death myself. Well, the threat thereof. When I wrote two years ago about going through radiation and chemo therapies for cancer, I noted that people, learning about my diagnosis, would practically insist that I “fight it.” I demurred.

If I had sorcerers instead of physicians, and if those wizards could conjure and embody cancer to stand before me, fists raised, then I’d fight – if that were the way to a cure. But I’m simply cooperating with the protocols.

Death isn’t a person. Death has no being. Death doesn’t come for us; the undertaker will. Death is the reason the undertaker will come.

Come to think of it, Life is also not a person.

Perhaps we personify death because there are angels involved in death, and angels certainly are sentient beings, some of whom are associated with death.

We suppose an angel of death was present during the Passover, although Exodus (12:23) tells us that “the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down.” Maybe the “destroyer” was an angel.

In Revelation 6:1-8, St. John describes death riding a pale horse, but that’s allegorical.

When Moses died, Michael the archangel “disputed with the devil over the body of Moses” (Jude 1:9), but neither Michael nor Satan – angels both – is Death. They are messengers and guides, and death is very important to them because it’s the line demarcating time and eternity:

over here, you have chances / over here, you have none.

Every moment of every day, a guardian angel is inspiring us to courage, love, and virtue – before it’s too late. Demons are energetic in their reinforcement of despair, anger, and sin – until it’s too late.

Death is an astonishing part of God’s plan, because in the fulfillment of that plan, in which it plays so large a role, death will cease to exist. There is no death in either Heaven or Hell.

We say sometimes, “he lost his life,” meaning body and mind have slipped away, the person can no longer “hold on to life.” Being in extremis brings us to the edge of the worlds that will never “pass away” (Matthew 24:35). As death nears, some “see” something or, rather, someone or someones. Your father was here, a dying mother tells her children gathered around the hospital bed, referring to their late father. Perhaps loved ones do act as messengers.

As my maternal grandfather was nearing the end, I brought him to my mother’s house for what would be his last Thanksgiving dinner. In the car heading to mom’s house, I glanced over to see tears streaming down his cheeks. He was looking up at a brilliant blue and cloudless sky, which he told me “is full of angels.”

And when Lee Elmer Earnhart died, Death didn’t lead him on; an angel surely did.


*Image: Death on a Pale Horse by J.M.W. Turner, c.1825–30 [Tate, London]


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.