Death, in Orpheus, is an aristocrat.  She drives a black Rolls-Royce and cruises outside the Café Poete for young, handsome poets.   When she finds one to her liking, she runs him down to invite him to her decrepit villa, where she puts him to work, reciting aphorisms into a shortwave radio.  She watches Orpheus in the dark with unblinking, lidless eyes.  When he finally embraces her, and she embraces him back.  She moves through time and space via mirrors.  As her manservant Heurtebise explains, “Look at yourself in a mirror all your life, and you’ll see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass.”

In Tanith Lee’s “Elle Est Trois (La Mort),” Death takes on three forms:  the Thief, the Butcher, and the Seductress.  Under these guises, she stalks bohemian artists — friends, patrons of the same café — living in 19th Century Paris.  It’s La Bohème with gore.  Death sings the aria.

For The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman posits Death as a black-cloaked entity, a chess-player with a deadpan sense of humor.  In this form, he doesn’t crack a smile until he appears in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Neil Gaiman, in his Sandman series, pictures Death as a Goth-punk girl, with spiky hair and Egyptian eye make-up.  Her skin is pale, keeping with tradition, and she wears a black tank top.  A silver ankh hangs around her neck.  She has pets:  two goldfish.  Sometimes, on particularly strenuous cases, she wears leg warmers.

In Aurora, Colorado, Elisabeth was a year behind me in high school.  She was an adoptee from Laos, and she had severe eczema on her hands which turned them white and scaly, curled into claws.  When she stretched her fingers, raw pink flesh peeked out from between the scales.  I don’t recall shaking her hand, but I remember giving her hugs.  She wrote me my first year of college, talking about how excited she was to graduate high school and go to college, where life would spread out before her, a hotel hallway with innumerable doors to open.  I learned later, through a mutual friend, that death came for her at her birthday party.  A guest brought a snack that either contained peanuts or had come into contact with peanuts, and she went into anaphylactic shock.  Here, death is — what?  A cookie?  A slice of cake?  Would death in this form be any more or less ridiculous?  Would I have had a chance to respond to Elisabeth’s letter?

We give death a form in order to understand her.   If, we think, death can be personified, then we can put our arms around her.  She won’t appear so fearsome.  We can reason with her; we can make her fall in love with us, and she’ll turn back time, a film played in reverse, figures in the background stepping backwards, trying to un-remember the Tartarean landscape through which they pass.

It’s not her finality that they fear; it’s her abstraction.

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