Imago Mortis


photo by Charley


Two years I served
as Death’s shadow, visiting
the homes of the newly deceased.
Three steps behind the Reaper;
Four steps ahead of the Mortician.

Over some of the houses winged
cauldrons of black birds, heavy-hearted
creatures spreading night’s drear scent.
Three steps behind the Reaper;
Four steps ahead of the Mortician.

Over other homes I watched
as white doves descended clutching
olive branches in rose beaks, cooing
the smoky spirit skyward.
Three steps behind the Reaper;
Four steps ahead of the Mortician.

Several times I arrived
as the scythe and hourglass
brought the rattle, the final exhale, the end.

Oh, I was there!

For the one who, much too young,
too ill-omened – who had overcome
her bad choices and addiction.

She was infected by the violence
of her pusher, her former pimp;
infected irrevocably….

She ascended in a chariot,
lifted from suffering by seraphim.

I was there before Death.

I watched him shed tears,
turn away as he harvested.


Step-by-step I was with Death.


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59 thoughts on “Imago Mortis

    • You could say that it is with a sacred hush that you observe that moment approach. Those who work hospice can sometimes time Death’s approach… based on any number of things. And then, sometimes they are left wondering as Death takes a detour, or more rarely failure to arrive.


      • I know. A friend of mine put her mother into hospice – well, they have discharged her because she is walking again, has gained 8 pounds, and is eating. Go figure. I knew when my mother was getting ready to die. I had seen her cutting ties with earth for a month. when they called me from the nursing home to let me know she had died, I was not surprised. I was hurt but not surprised.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I understand. I am going through my grieving process differently than I have in the past. I find writing about my mother helpful and sometimes healing. We all have our different routes. I am still grieving my dad and he died 30 years ago. He went suddenly. My mother took a couple of years to die. I guess that is the difference.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, and we respond to different griefs differently. Journaling… whether in notebooks or in poetry, stories, etc. is wonderfully therapeutic… for some. Others are driven to despair by it. Some create… some intentionally destroy. We aren’t patterned… we are individual. I haven’t found a way to write about my mother… for several reasons. And yet, sometimes unbidden, she sneaks into my writing. I see her there, looking out, with a wry grin. I am “eating the elephant.”


  1. Charley, I think this is one of your best ever. Stunning. The contrasts between the first two types clearly shows how different people deal with death; for some it is only grief and dispair and for others there is a release and a kind of bitter-sweet send off of the soul to something more. That last one, though, is beyond what words I can give it. Even Death is grieved, but God travels her as more than a saint. The refrains give this poem structure and a sense of rhythm, just as life and death are the pattern we all walk. Image of Death – 5 stars from me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Charley, this is so good. Sad, but a wonderfully executed write. I love the repeating lines: ‘three steps behind the reaper/four steps ahead of the mortician’. It’s a dark thing, watching death hover, but eventually there’s peace, too. I watched it four years ago with my mother-in-law. I’d never been that close to it before then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s easier when it isn’t your loved one. Not much easier for most people. For me it was a lot like being a friend of the narrator of The Book Thief (who is Death). I’m glad it worked for you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I guess I’ve seen death in another way than most. I have visited with people who are in the process of dying, who have a more positive outlook than those I meet who aren’t. It’s humbling to be able to share someone’s story… THE STORY… that they feel compelled to tell with their numbered breaths. It isn’t always peaceful, or beautiful. Yes, it can be painful and often is. I don’t stay focused on it… but the poem delivered itself, and there we are!


  3. This was an honour to read. You did the process justice and I liked the repetition. I too liked the part “Over some of the houses winged
    cauldrons of black birds, heavy-hearted
    creatures spreading night’s drear scent.” and death and grief can be experienced so differently.I wonder if we ever really let go, perhaps they that are dying do let go and it is just us that are left behind that want to hold on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True story. I worked home visitation hospice for a couple years. Not meant to be grim… but a tender memorial. Not everyone has gotten that. The reader completes the poem….


  4. Coming back to this now. Very powerful. The refrain has an amazing effect, and then you catch up. “Step-by-step I was with Death.” You stand with death there at the end, in all that complexity of the human condition.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Okay….if you were sitting beside me, at the end of my reading your post, you would have heard an audible “ohhhhh” escape my lips. This is an amazing write. So powerful. The idea of being the complement to death….seeing the doves or the blackbirds….after death…before the mortician….and in some cases, death in tears for having to harvest too young. Just the idea of death harvesting….this is quite a different view / different perspective on death. Really a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! That is really high praise. This was one that came… not easily, but with familiarity. For the time I worked hospice, it was not a difficult thing for me to literally be there just as I stated in this poem. I was someone who visited with the dying patient… helped them spiritually if I was able… and with the family following, helping with grief. I was there more than once for the final breath. I couldn’t do that now I don’t imagine.


  6. I like the detail here Charley, for example the seraphim lifted the girl from suffering, the highest order of angels, associated with purity and light acknowledging her innocence despite her degradation, compassion and understanding runs through this piece along with acceptance that death is or appears to be arbitrary . The denouement for me is just before the end ” I watched him shed tears,
    turn away as he harvested.” A final reminder of inevitability. A thinker wrapped in beautiful poignant ,prose. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sir. Your response is one of the most well-considered I’ve encountered. This was a labor of love that came several years after I gave up the hospice mantle. My view of death and dying comes through, I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What I read was that death is inevitable and arbitrary, a part of life and only time and manner separates our individual experience of it. Though loss will ever hurt only acceptance can free us from this shadow and finally that death can be release. If these are not your thoughts then it is my interpretation rather than your words. For me a great poem, like all art, moves me to thought as well as emotion, taking me down the path the author walks or a new path entirely. I’m looking forward to reading more of your erudite and eloquent words.


      • I have read and heard it said several times, that the poet begins the piece and the reader completes it. That, by our very nature, has to be true. You, sir, have provided a deeply thought-out response to my poem. I will look forward to reading your response to any of my offerings. Some on my blog have never had a word given, nor a visit recorded.

        Liked by 1 person

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