Death Takes a Holiday

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search

So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,

And death once dead, there's no more dying then.
Sonnet 146, William Shakespeare

That is not dead which can eternal lie.

And with strange aeons even death may die.

Something happens to the personification of Death such that the very concept of death is suspended. Maybe Death just decides to quit, or maybe someone "captures" Death.

People don't die anymore.

At first this seems wonderful, but eventually the Aesop rears its (sometimes ugly) head. People injured beyond repair and in excruciating pain aren't given release, or the threat of overpopulation is mentioned, or people abuse their newfound Immortality, or the writers just flat out say reality itself will collapse. The heroes either ask Death to return, or else free Death from whatever force has contained it. If the heroes themselves got rid of death, they'll discover The Problem with Fighting Death is you just can't win. Death may levy this as punishment for some crime against the natural order, and make it worse by coupling it with Age Without Youth.

If someone else has to take over for The Grim Reaper, it's a case of Subbing for Santa.

Examples of Death Takes a Holiday include:


  • This commercial shows a man surviving fatal incidents because death is busy enjoying a cold one.

Comic Books

  • Comic book example/subversion: In the first issue of The Sandman, a cabal of mystics attempt to capture Death and thus become immortal, but screw up and trap her brother Dream instead, leading to worldwide sleeping disorders. When he escapes captivity several decades later, he berates his captor (the son of his captor, at least) that he has no idea what kind of chaos would have resulted had they succeeded.
    • Also played straight later on, though it isn't really Death that takes a holiday; it's Lucifer Morningstar, who literally closes Hell. Because of this, the universe is thrown out of whack, and everyone who's ever died (or at least died and gone to Hell) returns to walk the Earth and interact with the living. There are numerous examples of various horrors, among which are the ghost of an undeveloped stillborn being cradled by its mother and a boy who's recently died watching his dead body.
      • On the other hand, it also led to The Dead Boy Detectives, so that's all right.
    • Death did actually take a day off and live as a mortal during Death: The High Cost Of Living. Of course, the rules of mortality weren't distorted at all during her absence.
      • Because she wasn't absent, she existed simultaneously as Death and Didi. In the short comic "Death: A Winter's Tale", she reminisces about her history and reveals there was a time millions of years ago when she fulfilled this trope because she was sick of everyone being unhappy to see her. After a while, the usual "people realize how much they really need Death" kicked in and someone was sent to find her and get her to start up again.
    • In The Black Ring, Lex Luthor (who stars as a Villain Protagonist) gains godlike power and, for a brief time, does away with all death and suffering in the universe. A scene shows Death, who is overjoyed to realize that, for the first time in eons, she can actually relax.
    • Dream's brother Destruction grew weary of his role one day and just left. Destruction still occurred without him. He's currently wandering across the universe and trying his hand at various attempts at creation (artwork, cooking, music, poetry, etc.) which all fail in various ways.
    • In another story, a sorcerer of some sort is able to lock death out of a gate that leads to his island, allowing him and his court to happily live the same day over and over again. Eventually, Death gets in and reveals that the "outside" of everyone is dead... In a bit of a subversion, it's revealed that the sorcerer belives he has forced not Death to take a vacation, but Time.
    • Hob Gadling manages immortality by simply deciding to remain alive. Apparently, Death won't bother you if you're completely opposed to dying.
    • Inverted in Action Comics 900 when Lex Luthor becomes one with the child of the Phantom Zone, and he stops entropy itself. The concept of death itself is stopped and so the Death has her very first vacation since the beginning of time.
  • This becomes a worldwide problem in the Marvel Comics series Paradise X, an unforeseen side effect of the destruction of Death at the end of Universe X. This also happens in the Secret Wars II Crisis Crossover, when the naive Beyonder kills Death because "nobody wants to die".
  • In an issue of Fables, Jack of the Tales traps Death in a sack to secure a roll in the sheets with a wealthy but terminally ill southern belle. Lets just say it makes breakfast awkward when it refuses to stay still after slaughter. When released, Death is actually grateful for his first day off, ever, and will forgive Jack on the condition that he gets a day trapped in the sack every year or so.
  • Marvel recently featured a parallel world nicknamed the "Cancerverse," which came about when the assembled heroes of Earth killed Death in an attempt to save Captain Marvel from his terminal cancer. Things went bad. Really bad.
  • One occurs in issue #2 of the Bill and Ted comic book series.


  • The trope name comes from the title of a novel, that was later adapted into a film of the same name in 1934, starring Frederic March and Evelyn Venable, remade as a telemovie in 1971, and remade again in 1998 as Meet Joe Black.
    • Meet Joe Black actually avoids the trope by having Death explain that for him, killing people is just like "making a decision while shaving in the morning". The film Death Takes A Holiday leaves the trope intact.
  • On Borrowed Time (1939) has Lionel Barrymore holding off Death (personified as a "Mr. Brink") by trapping him in an apple tree in his backyard.

Folk Lore

  • Older Than Feudalism: In Greek Mythology, the Manipulative Bastard Sisyphus captured Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. Sisyphus only wanted to prevent his own death (and not for the first time, either!), and accidentally ended up preventing all humans from dying at all (not that he ever gave a damn about other people's suffering in the first place). He did this to escape the punishment he would certainly receive for: breaking the laws of hospitality (he killed guests and travelers under his care to steal from them), seducing his niece, Tyro, in one of his many, many plots to kill his hated brother, Salmoneus, ratting out Zeus' romance with the nymph Aegina to her father Asopus, and just pissing off the gods in general. In the end he learned the hard way about The Problem with Fighting Death when Death's boss made a bargain with him.
  • Another folk tale variant is "Death in a Nut", in which a boy traps death to save his mother, but then can't get bacon, cabbages, etc. His mother explains that death is natural, and he releases the Reaper.
  • "Death gets stuck in a magic tree" is the idea behind the folktale Tia Miseria: an old woman traps Death in her pear tree and only agrees to release him when her oldest friend begs to be allowed to die of old age. However, Tia Miseria makes death promise never to come for her; as long as Death keeps his promise, there will always be misery in the world.
  • In one of the Appalachian "Jack Tales" (derived from English folktales), Jack, through magic, is able to see Death perched above the bed of a dying person and traps Death in a sack. Many, many years later, he meets a very old woman who complains of being so old and not able to die because some fool has Death trapped in a sack. Jack thinks about this, goes home and unties the sack and Death resumes his duties, "and Jack was just about the first one Death got, I reckon."
    • A variation on this story has Death so afraid of Jack that he runs from Jack once released and refuses to take him, making Jack a permanent sufferer of this trope.
    • This is related to a folktale in which Jack traps the Devil, rather than death. Sometimes he traps him up a tree by planting crosses or carving a cross. Sometimes he tricks him into turning into a coin, which is then placed in a wallet next to a cross. Either way, Jack ends up wandering the world, carrying one of the embers of hell with him to light his way: Jack of the Lantern. Similarly, you can end up with Will of the Wisp. Jack o'Lantern was originally, fable notwithstanding, just a term for a night watchman, a guy with a lantern.


  • The trope name comes from the title of a novel that was adapted into a film of the same name in the 1930s, remade as a telemovie in the 1970s and remade again in 1998 as Meet Joe Black.
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels has several:
    • In Mort, Death takes on an apprentice (the titular Mort) and then leaves him in charge whilst and goes wandering around the Disc trying human pleasures such as fishing, partying, and getting drunk. Naturally, Hilarity Ensues...
    • Reaper Man features Death being "laid off" by the Auditors, with quite a bit of chaos resulting, including a wizard coming back as a zombie, a rash of poltergeist activity, and, strangest of all, the city of Ankh-Morpork being threatened by a living, parasitic shopping mall. Again, Hilarity Ensues.
    • In Soul Music, Death has run off to forget his troubles and his granddaughter Susan must fill in, much to her annoyance. Yet again, Hilarity Ensues.
    • Death literally takes a holiday in the novel Hogfather. The titular character (Discworld's version of Santa Claus) is incapacitated, and Death takes on his role in order to make sure Hogswatch proceeds as normal. However, he does take the time to supervise the death of a small creature at the bottom of the ocean. Hey, guess what ensues?
      • Mortality?
      • Note that in Hogfather he's still also doing his normal job, in addition to the Hogfather's. He has to take care of several of the deceased Tooth Fairy guards and Ernie the cart-driver, though his refusal to do so for the little match girl is a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming. (There's no better present than a future.) Also turned into a Crowning Moment of Funny when angels show up with tinkling music to collect the child's soul, only to have Death's assistant Albert throw snowballs at them until they go away.
  • In Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse, Death goes on strike in an attempt to combat Satan. However, he fully understands the consequences of this, as does everyone else.
    • And Word of God indicates that this novel is the (distant, assuredly) inspiration for Dead Like Me, mentioned below.
  • This occurred in a short story this troper read a few times, years ago, but can't remember the name - only that it involved a bet, Death getting stuck in some sort of special tree he needed someone's permission to get out of, and that somehow, it led to the origin of all the world's "no-good gamblers.
    • The "Death stuck in a magic tree" plot is the basis of the folktale Tia Miseria (an old woman traps Death in her pear tree, and only agrees to release him when her oldest friend begs to be allowed to die of old age), but gambling doesn't figure into the tale.
  • Ray Bradbury's short story The Scythe features a man who becomes the Grim Reaper. When he learns what he's been doing he refuses to work, only to find that if he doesn't take the souls of people who are supposed to die they end up in an unconscious limbo state between life and death.
  • Isaac Asimov's short story: The Last Trump, is about these. As no human could ever decide how the afterlife would be, The Chief (a.k.a God) decide that the only thing common in humanity is the fear of death. When the day of the judgement finally arrive, all people stop dying and the dead ones start to resurrect.
  • On Borrowed Time, a 1937 novel that was made into a play and film. Gramps wishes that anyone that climbs up his apple tree will have to stay there until he lets them down. Death comes for Gramps. Gramps tricks Death up into the old apple tree where he must remain until Gramps lets him down.
  • This is the whole plot of José Saramago's Death with Intervals, which explores all the political, social and economical consequences of people not dying in a certain country - a sense of pride, crime syndicates threatening people with fates worse than death and the trafficking of ill people to the border so they can die, with all the international chaos that follows. Death then resumes to its reaping though she begins to warn people beforehand, until she falls in love with the only man she couldn't kill. The following day, no one died.
  • One of the protagonists of The Prophecy of the Stones is spared because of this trope, but they have to persuade Death to end her strike anyway.
  • The Bible includes a reference to this, making it Older Than Feudalism.

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them. - Revelation 9:6

    • Of course, the Bible also speaks of God putting an end to death, and this is clearly established as being a good thing. Then there's the somewhat strange verse where Death gets sent to Hell.
  • The Dresden Files: Although The Grim Reaper's existence hasn't been confirmed In-Universe (yet), this is basically the goal of Kumori in Dead Beat. Harry himself is intelligent enough to realize this is a horrible idea.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus, this shows up in the second book, although it's more like "Death Gets Kidnapped." Gaia bound Thanatos, the Greek god of death, to allow monsters to keep escaping the underworld; a side effect of this is that no one dies.

Live Action TV

  • Xena: Warrior Princess episodes "Death in Chains" (loosely based on the above myth) and "Mortal Beloved".
  • Variation on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys in Love Takes a Holiday where it's Aphrodite, the goddess of love, so love is suspended instead of death. It only applies to women and Aphrodite explains that "if men felt the same way, where would the fun be?", which may be a Lampshade Hanging since she doesn't otherwise seem to be in control of the effect.
  • Charmed episode "Styx Feet Under".
  • "The Soldier and Death", an episode of The Storyteller, features a man that keeps Death imprisoned. It was adapted from an the same story as the above mentioned "Jack Tales", though with a different ending.
  • George is less than enthusiastic about her duties at the beginning of Dead Like Me and tries to shirk them... with highly negative consequences. Later in the first season however, as the basis for a Clip Show, the group gets a day off from reaping in the aptly-titled episode "Vacation". The beings that cause the "external circumstances" (accidents, mostly) which the group handles take a day off "every few years". Rube takes the opportunity to catch up on paperwork... from the last seventy or eighty years.
  • One episode of Night Court had this when a middle-aged man was held for examination when he claimed to be Death. After the usual Aesop, he was released and people resumed dying.
  • This is the premise of a Supernatural episode, also called "Death Takes A Holiday" where the boys stumble upon a village where no one is dying. In this case the village's Reapers were captured by a demon so one can be sacrificed in order to open one of the seals imprisoning Lucifer.
  • The Twilight Zone 2003 reboot had the episode "One Night of Mercy". Death (played by Jason Alexander) decided to quit, and the doctor he confided this with was thrilled. This was looking optimistic and hopeful right up until the point where a bunch of people who were immolated was brought into the emergency room, still alive because Death had quit. Naturally, the good doctor found Death and convinced him to return to work, after seeing this, and gets taken as Death's first victim, as a result (he had been suffering "headaches" up until then, in reality the symptoms of an oncoming aneurysm).
  • In the Kids in The Hall mini-series Death Comes to Town, Ricky was an aborted baby who miraculously survived because Death slept in.
  • Inverted in the episode "Death Takes A Holiday" of Mash. While the rest of the camp celebrates Christmas, BJ, Hawkeye and Margaret are trying to keep a dying soldier alive till the next day, so his family does not have a link Christmas with beloved people dying. Ramming the message war sucks home, the doctors fail with 10 minutes to spare. Hawkeye advances the clock past midnight so they can put December 26 on the death certificate.
  • The entire premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Played for Drama, and every Medical Horror implication of the trope is thoroughly explored.


  • In the Broadway play On Borrowed Time, the protagonist traps death so he won't die with no one left to take care of his orphaned grandson.

Video Games

  • The Discworld computer game Discworld II: Missing, Presumed...? (Mortality Bytes in the US) has death take a holiday to get away from his troubles, leaving Rincewind to take his place.
  • How the 9th Touhou game Phantasmagoria of Flower View happens, basically. What makes this interesting is that it happens every 60 years, and some of the characters have no clue despite being older than that.
    • Well, what actually happens every 60 years is a surge of death for whatever reason, which presumably requires the shinigami to work overtime. Komachi just happened to be slacking off this time around, leading to all the souls she wasn't escorting to the afterlife to start manifesting as flowers.
      • The atomic bombings of you-know-where and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami?
      • A-bombs get way more press then they really deserve together they killed a bit over 200,000 people in total. Sounds bad, but it's nothing but a drop in the bucket against the estimated 70 million the war claimed in total directly or indirectly. World War II was a slaughter on an almost ungodly scale, nothing since has held even a pale candle to it.
  • Played with in Jade Empire. With the shepherd of the dead incapacitated, people still die, but their souls don't go to the underworld to be reincarnated, causing ghosts to crop up EVERYWHERE, and eventually go crazy from not being able to find where to go.
  • Played with in the online game Adventure Quest, Death has taken on a policy of sending adventurers back in exchange for being owed a favor. The characters are all very aware of this effect, comment when Death fails to send back a soul he desires, and have, if I recall correctly, noted the immense number of favors Death has been accumulating but never called in. It has also been blamed for the lack of dragons as powerful as existed only 5 years earlier in the prequel game Dragonfable: once adventurers stopped dying, many more of them were able to get powerful enough to slay the rather rare most powerful dragons, leaving only the more common weaker ones.
  • Echo Bazaar features this as a major aspect of the setting. Death is extraordinarily rare in Fallen London, although this is a mixed blessing. Much like in Death Becomes Her, a person's body can become worn out through injury, and those in a sufficient state of disrepair are sent off to the Tomb-Colonies, which are just as pleasant as they sound.


  • Irregular Webcomic nearly had this: the Deaths did not go on holiday, but rather on strike for better wages. Their strike failed when they attempted to form a picket line across the infinite featureless plane they reside in, mainly because several Deaths just couldn't help collecting souls and broke the line. Also, they realized that the picket line was useless for blockade purposes, as the infinite featureless plane of death is (allegedly) infinite, while the picket line was finite in size.
  • Played with in Jack. The titular personification of Wrath and Death goes on vacation for two strips. Played for laughs, ironically, considering that this is one of the few comics that would blatantly show the horrors of no Death.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • Gargoyles episode "Grief" when a man traps the god of death (Anubis) by summoning him and nothing is able to die until he leaves. Anubis points out the dangers of his actions: there is still birth, but now no death to balance it out. Interestingly he got his happy ending, he trapped Anubis to try and force him to return his dead son, in the end he was happily reunited with his son, in the afterlife. A pretty sensible solution for a verse with an explicitly true afterlife.
    • Greg Weisman regretted not actually doing anything with this concept. The episode in question had the heroes captured, perfect opportunity for the villains to try killing them only to fail when death isn't working.
  • An early episode of Family Guy had Death twist his ankle while trying to claim Peter, forcing the Griffins to take care of him until he gets better. Peter lets the cat out of the bag, revealing to the world that nobody can die, and Death forces him to kill the cast of Dawson's Creek in order to prove that he still has power. In the end, Peter accidentally finds a solution that spares the actors and shows that Death is still around.
  • The status of death in the universe of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy may or may not be suspended while Grim is in bondage to the kids. He's shown reading an obituary page in one episode, lamenting that nobody has died for a while. In another episode, Mandy sternly orders him "No Grim Reaping!" If nobody can really die anymore, that would certainly explain the show's Negative Continuity. On the other hand, he's shown on several occasions to, in fact, be reaping. (In one episode where he and Billy switch roles, Billy ends up having to reap; the "Big Boogy Adventures" movie also showed Grim trying to reap someone.)
    • The webcomic Grim Tales from Down Below certainly believes that reaping is still going on while Grim's their slave. He did a role switch with Mandy. She caused 9/11.
  • In a Simpsons' Halloween special, Homer kills Death after trying to save Bart from him. Lisa mentions that there is now a world without death, and then cue scenes around Springfield of people not dying when they should. Homer then puts on Death's cloak for fun and accidentally becomes the new Grim Reaper (Possibly an Affectionate Parody slash Hallow'een version of The Santa Clause). Hilarity Ensues
  • The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has an episode named after this trope, Rabbit Takes a Holiday, in which Rabbit decides he doesn't have enough work to do, so he takes a vacation, and leaves Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger of all people to watch after his garden. Eventually, when he returns, he has more than enough work to do, thus, in an ironic twist of fate, he winds up being grateful to them.