Harry Meadows was a resident of the Haslemere Home for the Elderly in Great Yarmouth when, in 1961 and aged 87, he decided to dress up as the Grim Reaper. With scythe in hand, Harry looked through a window at his fellow residents – three of whom promptly died, presumably from existing heart problems or shock.
Who is, or was, the Grim Reaper? The figure in black hooded robes carrying a scythe is a personification of death, and first appeared in the 1600s with the name ‘Grim Reaper’ traceable to 1847. The Grim Reaper appears in order to collect the souls of the recently deceased, in some folklore appearing when death is imminent thus enabling the individual to attempt to cheat death, as seen in ‘The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The personification of death long predates the creation of the Grim Reaper – the Greeks named death Thanatos, twin brother of Hypnos the God of Sleep, whose job was to guide the dead to Hades; the Valkyries of Norse mythology escorted the souls of those killed in battle; the Bible (Revelation 6:1-8) lists Death as one of the four horsemen and the Angel of Death appears across religions and cultures. The modern concept of the Grim Reaper is linked to plagues in the 15th and 17th Centuries as artists began to depict death as a skeleton, using his scythe to cut down swathes of the population and the Danse Macabre, plays performed to churchgoers as preparation for an inevitable death, featured skeletal figures who lead the victim away and which were captured by engravers like Notke and Holbein. The Grim Reaper also featured in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and Brad Pitt played the role of Death in the 1998 film ‘Meet Joe Black’.