How the Grim Reaper Works

Accepting Our Own Mortality

Not everyone's afraid of the Grim Reaper. A small religious sect that worships death is now fighting the Mexican government for recognition.
Not everyone's afraid of the Grim Reaper. A small religious sect that worships death is now fighting the Mexican government for recognition.
AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

­Before you can have the Grim Reaper -- a personification of death -- you have to have death itself. In almost all cultures and religions, humans were first created as immortal beings who fell from their state of perfection. The fall of Adam and Eve is the classic example, chronicled in the Bible. According to the Book of Genesis, God created Adam and Eve to take care of the world He had created and to populate the Earth. The first man and woman lived in the Garden of Eden, a perfect place. God told Adam to take care of the garden and harvest fruit from any tree -- except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately, Satan, speaking through a serpent, tricked Eve into eating the fruit. She then took the fruit to Adam, who also ate it even though he knew it was wrong. As their punishment for disobeying God, Adam and Eve experienced both spiritual and physical death.

In other religions, humans were created as mortals who tried, but failed, to achieve immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells this story. A product of Mesopotamian literature, Gilgamesh was the son of a goddess and a human king. Gilgamesh, however, remained just as mortal as any other man, including his best friend Enkidu. When Enkidu dies, the great hero becomes haunted by the prospect of death and sets out on a quest for immortality. His travels bring him to Utnapishtim, a human who has been allowed by the gods to live forever. Utnapishtim promises to grant Gilgamesh immortality if the hero can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh eventually falls asleep, but Utnapishtim still rewards him with a plant that has the power to rejuvenate its owner. On the journey home, a hungry snake devours the plant, ending any hope Gilgamesh has of becoming immortal.

In Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh returns home and happily accepts his life as a mortal man. Most humans, however, aren't so easygoing. We're troubled by the idea of our own mortality. Death is a constant shadow hanging over everything we do. Research bears this out. A 2007 survey found that 20 percent of Americans aged 50 and older become frightened when they think about what happens to them when they die. Fifty-three percent believe in the existence of spirits or ghosts; 73 percent in life after death [source: AARP].

Clearly, what happens as we die, as well as what happens after we die, is a major concern, as it has been for thousands of years. To make sense of dying and mortality, humans rely on a tried-and-true method: They give death a form they recognize. This turns an abstract, invisible phenomenon into something real and tangible. If you look at death and see a familiar face, you can understand it. If you look at death and see a kind, gentle face, even better -- you can put aside your fears.

Of course, it can work the other way. You can find a terrifying countenance when you look upon death. As we'll see in the next section, the frightening face of the Grim Reaper evolved after a particularly difficult time in human history.