A skeleton dressed in black armor rides into a scene of death and devastation, carrying a black flag. His horse smiles as he steps over the dead, approaching people who will soon too meet this fate. A sun rises in the distance, showing the promise of a new beginning.
Main Interpretation: Endings But Not THE END...
The words on a Tarot card, particularly those based on the older Rider Waite model, should not always be taken literally, and the Death card is probably the best example of this. Many people cringe when they see this card come up in their reading, but the truth is the card RARELY means physical death (Personally, I find the 8 of Cups and 6 of Swords are more likely to serve this purpose). Instead, this card is talking about the ending of a cycle in your life. Some situation is coming to close, now and forever. Like what? Well, it could be anything: graduating from school, the end of a relationship, the end of a project at work...really anything that follows the words "the end of...".
Those who do best in life are those that accept this fate and look for the new possibilities that lie ahead. If the cards shows up reversed, this indicates some resistance to this process. You see this cycle wanting to finish, but you do not want to see it conclude, so you avoid it. (Interestingly, most people say that this kind of situation sets you up for the Tower card, because the Tower tears down that which you would not address yourself with the Death card!) Another reversed meanings could be that the time has not yet come for ending, that more needs to be done before this phase can conclude.
If you do not use reversals, resistance to change could be indicated by, among others, the 4 of Cups, 7 of Wands, and the Knight of Pentacles (whose horse is waiting for the command to move forward). Cards that would indicate the time is not yet right for progress could be the 8 of Pentacles (showing more work being done), any Minor Arcana cards number 1-9 because they have not yet reached 10 - the number symbolizing the end of a cycle - or any Pages or Knights, which show the earlier stages of development in a situation
Example: Grief Following A Physical Death
I performed a year-ahead reading for a friend whose father was dying. She wanted to look at the Tarot to see some indication of when he may pass, but instead the Tarot - which is not great as a predictor of other people's deaths - showed her personal struggles and triumphs over the coming year.
Confusing things slightly was the appearance of the Death card for the month of May. She took this to mean her father would die in May, but as we know, this is taking the card too literally. (Indeed, her father died in February, not May.) Instead, when we looked at her Tarot spread, we saw three reversed cards for the winter months, which seemed to indicate some emotional and mental struggle then. She would emerge from this period battered (as seen in the 5 of Pentacles) and somewhat in shock, but by May, she would be starting to feel better. In fact, her cards for June, July, and August were the King of Wands, the 9 of Wands, and the World respectively. Not a bad lineup at all!
Looking back on the reading, we can see that the Death card in May showed her emerging from the shadow surrounding her father's death in February. This difficult phase of her life in which she cared for and then grieved one of her parents came to an end then, and I do not think anyone can say this was a bad thing. In fact, it was absolutely the opposite! The Death card showed her leaving this emotional time behind and letting the sun back into her life. Things were starting to look up again.
The Bottom Line: There's Nothing To Fear, Let It Come
The Death card is here to tell you "It's over." It is time for this phase in your life, whether good or bad, to conclude. You may note its ending, but there is no use in fighting it. Life is too short to be caught in the past when an even brighter future beckons. Simply let this cycle conclude with grace and gratitude, and life will help you move on to what's next.