Tarot of the Dead - Monica Knighton
“This isn’t about what happens after you die…It’s about letting go of the euphemisms and accepting where this parade is headed. The shadow of mortality makes the minor worries of the day silly, petty, and ridiculous…Our humanity survives in our willingness to communicate. If we can talk about death, then maybe we can be better equipped to be there for the living in terms of grief and loss.” – From the Tarot of the Dead Little White Book

At the beginning of November, Mexico celebrates “Day of the Dead”, or Dia de los Muertos. And celebration it is with families and friends honoring the dead with flowers, food offerings, gifts of clothing—anything the loved one enjoyed in life. Some commemorate this day as one of remembrance, while others believe that the dead literally return for a visit.

Contrast this attitude with America, says Monica Knighton, where “mortality is simply not something we want to talk about. It implies loss of control. Our ideas about where our dead family and friends fit into our psychological landscape are splintered and vague.” Of course, she is right.

This attitude strikes Ms. Knighton as strange, the way Americans rush through (or try to rush others) through the grieving process—wondering when someone will “just get over it”. Outward signs of grief are an unspoken taboo and, unfortunately, many people tend to run from those in mourning.

With the attempt to bring death to the forefront, Ms. Knighton offers us the Tarot of the Dead—where skeletons grace every image save the unnamed card usually known as “Death”. There, we see the only living person—a very pregnant young woman.

The Major Arcana oozes witty gallows humor, where the skeletal Fool hitchhikes alongside a busy road with his (or her) skeletal canine companion. Instead of nipping at his bony heels, the dog lunges after a car. The crowned skeleton on the Justice card carries the usual scale in one hand—but a pistol where a sword would be…reminiscent of “street justice” where guns settle scores with quick finality.

A skeleton in a 3-piece suit sits before a computer, while talking on the phone and watching the clock. God knows where *this* Emperor thinks he needs to be… And Strength? Why, there’s brave skeleton about to dazzle an audience with a bit of fire eating.

The Tarot of the Dead Minor Arcana features the suits of Pistols (Air), Pens (Fire), Reels (Earth), and Coffins (Water). Ms. Knighton explains that the Pens suit is one of “freedom, of active change, and of seized opportunity just like a writer brainstorming”, while Pistols “as a symbol of thought…emphasizes all the shades of gray lying between the two edges of the blade before letting your bullet cut through the air.”

The Earth suit of Reels represents the material world but Ms. Knighton is quick to point out that our “reality” is based entirely on our unique perspective. “Just as our perception of the world is translated to us through our mind and senses”, she writes, “film reflects a composite perception of the material world”. Lastly, the Water suit, represented by Coffins, holds our “soul stuff”, for “the coffin as a receptacle for the body speaks also of the body as a receptacle for the soul.”

The cards of the Tarot of the Dead measure approximately 4 ½ x 3 inches, with the Courts following the Page, Knight, Queen, King designation. The card backing shows two white skulls and mauve roses superimposed on a harlequin diamond pattern. Because of the coloration, the backs are not completely reversible. There are two extra cards depicting an 8-card Pyramid Spread—one in English and one in Spanish. The LWB conveys card meanings in both English and Spanish, 26-pages dedicated to each language. As far as LWB’s go, the interpretations are quite insightful.

This box set also comes with a black organdy bag and a white cardboard storage box with decorative navy blue border.

I didn’t think I’d enjoy the Tarot of the Dead, but the Major Arcana toggles between clever and amusing. I was so swept up in the images that I actually felt a lurch of disappointment when I realized that the Minors were NOT illustrated. That is, the Pistols suit shows X amount of pistols, the Coffin suit shows X amount of coffins and so on. The Courts, however, are illustrated rather uniquely, with differing reversible images.

Some of the times, these courtly illustrations go right along with the LWB interpretations. For example, the reversed Page of Coffins can indicate “painful shyness” and the reversed image shows a skeleton barely peeking from behind the coffin lid. However, most of the Court images don’t jive with the interpretations and even appear to contradict them.

I tried to do a few small readings with the Tarot of the Dead, but unfortunately, I can’t seem to glean ANY information from this deck. Of course, that doesn’t mean that others won’t. I’m not fond of non-illustrated Minors as it is and although the Majors are clever and meaningful, it’s not a deck I would read with.

However, for those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos or perhaps are amused by dark humor, this novel deck could fill a unique niche. Deck collectors would likely want to add the Tarot of the Dead to their collection simply for its arresting originality.

Below are 10 images from this deck:

Tarot of the Dead by Monica Knighton © 2004. Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. 2143 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125-2989. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher.

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Content copyright © by Janet Boyer. All rights reserved. This review was written by Janet Boyer. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission.