A Journey Through the Major Arcana: The Death Card

Jennifer VanBenschoten

I just gotta say, the Death card is probably the most misunderstood and misaligned card in the entire 78-card deck of the Tarot. Is Death pretty? No. Is Death easy? No. But Death - endings, transformation, shedding, and composting - is a very necessary part of the cycle of life. Without Death, we would have no reason to live, or something like that.  

Personal circumstances have taken me through a major cycle of Death recently, and once I was able to face that fact, I was able to gain this whole new appreciation of the Death card. Living through some of the most difficult physical challenges of my life, I felt something dying in me, but couldn't put my finger on it. Now that I've accepted it and learned from it, I'm working with the Death card and a new Tarot spread to get a handle on what I've left behind and get some insight into what's coming in the future.


To understand the message and meaning of The Death card, let's look at its origins and history of the Tarot. When Tarot first appeared in the mid 15th century, death was as much a daily part of life as living. Without modern medicine and an understanding of disease, women were particularly vulnerable to death in childbirth, as were young children and infants. How did they deal with the end of life? Sometimes with pomp and circumstance. Sometimes with over-the-top grief. Almost always, death wasn't treated as the final end to all ends - there was always hope and belief of life after death. 

It's that great transformation that comes out when the Death card comes up. We all go through transformations throughout our lives. We are not the same people that we were a month ago, a year ago, ten years ago. With the dawn of this new decade, many people are looking back at where they were ten years ago. How have you transformed in the last ten years?

The Death Card and Physical Death

While there are some Tarot readers and scholars who say that the Death card can sometimes indicate an actual physical death is imminent, I don't approach Tarot with the idea that the cards can predict this kind of death. But if this is the kind of thing that floats your boat, go for it. Tarot is different in the hands of everyone who practices it.

The Death Card Spread

To help you get a better idea of the energy behind The Death card, I wrote up this spread. Feel free to draw anywhere from one to three cards for each question to give you better clarity about the insight you're seeking:

Position 1: What is dying in me/my life?

Position 2: What did I learn from each of these things?

Position 3: What step/s is/are necessary for rebirth?

Position 4: What new opportunities are here for me to welcome in?

Position 5: The message from this lesson

A Ritual For The Death Card

Begin by lighting a candle. It can be black if you have one handy, or any color that you happen to have. Get your favorite herb to smudge with - I prefer to use some locally harvested cedar from my backyard and the mountain near my home. Give yourself a proper smudging, remembering the soles of the feet and the heart center. 

You can call in the energy of the directions: with a nod to whichever direction you happen to be in at this moment, begin with the East.

East: new beginnings, air, perspective, plans for the future. South: emotions, water element, inspired actions. West: purification, fire, the boundary between the energetic and the physical. North: earth, spirit, spirit guides and helping spirits.

Write down your intention for doing this reading. Is it for someone else? Is it for yourself? How are you welcoming in and acknowledging this transformation?

As you lay out the cards, take your time and feel the energy of each card or set of cards in your heart center. Accept the images, sounds, and information that comes to you as you look at each card. If you'd like, write down anything that comes to you as you look at the cards. 

When you've finished the reading and written down everything that you needed to, put your deck away. Sit and gaze at the candle for a few seconds and say, "I acknowledge and accept the information given to me." 

At this point, you can speak aloud anything that you are ready to release. As you speak, feel your voice transforming the story and the energy into something new. Speak from the heart, drawing your voice up from your solar plexus and letting that energy rise through your chest and come out through your throat. Feel the vibrations of your lips and tongues shifting the energy of what you are transforming through Death.

When you are ready, smudge yourself again. Give gratitude for the energy, for the Tarot, and for your helping spirits and spirit guides if you work with any. Blow out your candle. 

Take some time following the reading for grounding and integration: eat a piece of dark chocolate, savoring every bite. Spend some time walking outside in silence or listening to music. Make a drawing, write a poem, or otherwise use art to integrate the information that you saw during the reading. You can also take a cleansing bath or shower using a handful of Epsom salts in the tub or shower. 


Other Ways to Get Familiar With Death

One of my absolute favorite ways to get familiar with cards in the Tarot deck is to just hit up Google. Take your deck and find the Death card. Spend a few minutes writing down anything about your Death card that jumps out at you - colors, images, sensations. Then look up the Death card in Google images, and click on a few. Do the same exercise again, writing down any colors, images, or sensations that jump out at you when you look at Death cards from other decks. Then go back and compare notes - what is the same about all of these cards? What's different? Did any of these cards feel very different from the rest? Did you find one card that you liked the best? Did you find one that repelled you? Write this all down in your Tarot journal (if you have one) and save it for future reference.

Working With the Major Arcana

If you're looking for a way to work with the Major Arcana and the Tarot, check out my Art Of Intuitive Tarot workbook. It's a downloadable PDF that you can print out and start using right away. Version 2 of my workbook is coming out in the spring of 2020 - but don't worry, if you purchase now, you'll automatically get the updated workbook when it releases in March.


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