It's one of mankind's oldest and most useless musings... "which will be the day I die, how much time do I still have?" In real life no one knows until it's too late. In fiction, some characters only need to check their clock.
The lifetime of a character has a physical manifestation, an object from which it's ticking, flowing or trickling ominously away. What discerns a Death's Hourglass from other "impending doom in 5,4,3" devices is that it is long-term and personal: It's a part of the character's life for more than a few action-filled hours, long enough to have an impact on the whole mood, usually by making it more tragic. Maybe everybody has one, maybe only one character has, but one Death's Hourglass only measures one person's time.
There are two distinct varieties of this:
There are clocks, watches, withering flowers and other things that fill this function, but the most popular and oldest design is a running hourglass, which is so poetically symbolic. May overlap with When the Clock Strikes Twelve if the hourglass or bell is also counting down to midnight. Compare with Doomsday Clock, which is the fatalistic version of this on a global scale.
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Anime and Manga
In Fist of the North Star, Rei was pierced in the Shinketsushuu power point by Raoh. When he was struck, Rei was given 72 hours to live. During his final days of life, Rei and his allies would fight Yuda. As the 3-day limit was about to take effect, Toki briefly counters it by giving Rei one more day by touching the Shinreidai power point.
In Death Note, everyone has a time at which they are destined to die. It's only visible to those with a Shinigami's eyes. However, using a death note allows you to kill people before their time and indirectly extend lives.
In an interesting subversion, Grim Reapers are encouraged to kill people before their time expires because that's how they extend their own lives.
In Alice 19th, Frey's mentor Eric dies after literal bells ring twelve times.
The infected survivors in King of Thorn are all given thick bracelets with a small bar/screen on them before becoming Human Popsicles. The bar is normally white, but as the Medusa Virus inside them gets worse, it steadily turns black. Once the bar is totally black, the infectee doesn't have much longer before they petrify.
Illegal contractors in Pandora Hearts have a clock face on their chest, measuring how many times the can use their chain's power before they are pulled down into the abyss.
The On the Next preview of Fate/Zero shows how much time is left before the Holy Grail appears. Since Irisviel is the conduit for the grail and the manifestation will obliterate her personality, this effectively acts as her Death's Hourglass.
Subverted in the end. It turns out this is the count to Kiritsugu finding Shirou, as revealed in episode 25. Therefore the countdown is actually to the point zero of Fate. "The story reaching to zero", indeed.
Films — Animated
In Shrek Forever After'', the time remaining before Shrek's "ogre day" is up and he fades away is measured by a giant hourglass in Rumpelstiltskin's throne room.
All Dogs Go to Heaven - every dog has a clock representing their lives (in heaven): it's suggested these are countdown clocks, though it's never actually said. When Charlie returns to life, he is immortal as long as his clock keeps working, which is similar but not identical to the trope.
There's also the fact that interfering with the natural progression of his life in such a manner gets him banned from returning to Heaven when he finally dies.
Hercules had the Fate sisters, and their strings of fate.
Films — Live-Action
In Fritz Lang's silent film Der müde Tod ("Weary Death"), Death has a candle representing each person and when the candle burns out the person dies. Whether this is an example of the fatalistic variety is ambiguous; Death gives the main character - a woman who has lost her lover and asks Death to return him to her - a chance to save three lives whose candles are about to go out, but in every case the protagonist fails, suggesting that perhaps it's impossible to defeat Death or Fate.
This is likely a reference to Gevatter Tod ("Godfather Death"), a fairy tale collected by The Brothers Grimm: In it, a poor man with a lot of children tries to find a godfather for his newest son by asking everyone he meets. After God and the Devil he meets Death which he decides on. The godfather grants the son knowledge which allows him to become a famous doctor, but after cheating Death one time too many over a princess' life, Death brings him into a cave full of candles. When each burns down the person connected to the flame dies. The son begs Death after being shown his own short candle to light another with the flame. Death agrees - but drops the candle before lighting the new one.
The image of a lighted candle representing a person's life and life-span is certainly a common one in German-speaking countries; there is even the colloquial expression jemandem das Lebenslicht auspusten "to blow out someone's life-light".
In English as well - one euphemism for death is to snuff it, referring to snuffing out a candle.
An interesting aspect of Fritz Lang's movie is that the length of the candle indicates life expectancy, not the the foreordained length of life; people may die before their candle is burned down entirely. In one of the earlier scenes a candle over a yard long suddenly goes out. As it does, a baby (i. e. the soul of the recently deceased baby) materializes in Death's hands.
Looper: In 2044, when a mob hitman's contract runs out, his future self (from the year 2074) is sent back to him to be killed. The hitman doesn't find out about this until he retrieves his payment from the body - gold bars instead of the usual silver. He now knows that he has exactly 30 years left to live.
The terrorist Renard, the main villain in The World Is Not Enough has a bullet lodged in his brain from a previous encounter with an MI6 operative, but survived the assasination attempt. The bullet is still moving and will eventually kill him, giving him a perpetual reminder that his death is imminent.
Some DVD menus for the first Final Destination use this theme, showing a clock ticking by the hours with an eerie, deterministic theme in the background, visualizing the survivors' limited time until Death catches up with them.
This is a major theme in Star Trek: Generations: Soran, the villain, who lost his family to the Borg, strongly believes that "time is the fire that we burn in", and seeks to escape from its confines by entering the Nexus, while Picard comes to the conclusion that time is instead a friend that guides us along through our lives.
The main selling point of In Time is a mixture of both types of this trope. Everyone is given a year to live after they reach 25, but you can add or subtract time from your clock. Also, it's used for currency, so your year can be up sooner then you think.
The Death of the Discworld has shelves and shelves of most different hourglasses.
The Discworld's "lifetimers" aren't just clocks. If a person's hourglass is broken, they immediately die or go catatonic, and Death doesn't normally control the flow of timers. He is merely supposed to help a timer's owner pass on when the sand runs out. (Fiddling with timers is usually a bad idea, as several characters discover the hard way.) Even Death has an hourglass, but it has no sand and cannot be damaged.
Rincewind's hourglass is a particularly interesting one. It has a very odd shape and the sand within sometimes flows slower or even in reverse. Even Death himself doesn't know when Rincewind's life is going to end. Death doesn't know when a lot of Discworld characters are going to die, but this effect is more pronounced in the case of Rincewind.
In Thud!, Vimes is having a near-Death experience, which forces Death to have a near-Vimes experience. Fortunately, Death brought a book.
As the Hogfather, Death was able to reverse the flow of sand in the Match Girl's hourglass.
"The Hogfather gives presents. There's no greater present than a future."
He does something similar for a young girl in Reaper Man by sacrificing the sand in his own glass (not the one above; he's been given a new one as a "retirement present", making him human). It is explicitly stated that this is a mortal ability - many do it all the time, without even realizing. Death, under normal circumstances, cannot truly extend someone's life. Miss Flitworth does the same for Death near the end, giving him enough time to take down the new Death.
In Mort, he doesn't give Mort more time, he turns the hourglass over. He doubles his lifespan, at the cost that now Mort knows exactly how long he has to live, although Death specifically noted that he's not a fan of math and that Mort doesn't know how much longer he has to live. However, in Soul Music the text says "He'd turned over the hourglass. After that it was all a matter of maths. And the Duty."
Elsewhere in Discworld, the witch Miss Treason from the Tiffany Aching subseries cultivates a rumor that she only stays alive because she keeps a clunky iron clock wound up and ticking.
Reaper Man also mentions that Death has a superior, Azrael, the Death of Universes. He watches over a single clock, and on that clock, the really big hand only goes around once.
Witches and wizards in general always know exactly when they are going to die. Witches generally take the opportunity to tidy up and prepare things for their successor, wizards tend to throw a party.
From the Children of the Lamp series by P.B. Kerr, in one of the books titled The Blue Djinn of Babylon, the titular Blue Djinn measures her remaining lifespan by means of an extremely large hour glass.
Dragons in Raymond Feist's Midkemia novels instinctively know the exact moment of their death for their entire lives.
In Stephen King's Insomnia, when a person's aura turns black, it's time for the Reapers to come.
The short story The Last Leaf by O. Henry: a seriously-ill girl believes that her life will end as the ivy outside her window sheds its last leaf. She gets better, of course.
Thomas Mann's version of Doctor Faustus has the Devil (probably) taunt the damned character with this concept. In their conversation an earlier book Melancholia is credited as the trope codifier.
Doctor Who NS S4 E17-E18 "The End of Time": "He will knock four times." (Carmen the psychic lady), "I think your song is ending." (Ood Sigma). The prophecies from previous episodes marking the ticking of the Doctor's Doomsday Clock are finally fulfilled.
From the first season we know that Centauri have prophetic dreams about their own deaths, that they know where and when they are going to die. In Londo Molari's case his dream has him as an old man, twenty years from now (2258) with his hands at G'Kar's throat and vice-versa. He is very fatalistic about it. Said dream is a recurring sequence through the years. He indeed dies in 2278, although the subtext is slightly different than he'd originally expected, as he wanted G'Kar to kill him to end his life under the control of the Drakh and to give Sheridan time to escape.
John Sheridan, after dying in Z'ha'dum gains limited amount of life-force from Lorien, knows exactly how long he is going to live, barring accidents or violence.
Although it's a clock instead of an hourglass, there is an episode of The Twilight Zone which revolves around the premise of a man who thinks his grandfather clock will expire when he dies and vice versa.
On Dead Like Me, the Grim Reapers had post-its showing a person's exact location and time of death. Also serves as an Or Else example, as they had to 'reap' the person's 'soul' before the stated time or else said soul became trapped in the corpse, and the soul has to experience whatever the corpse experiences between death and reaping.
An old Lost in Space episode featured an alien merchant who owned "time tapes" - big reel to reel tapes that measured out a person's time. When the tape ran out, bye bye.
In an episode of Medium, Allison finds a pair of sunglasses which allows her to see a digital number above people's heads. The number indicates how many days the person has left to live.
An episode of the Weird Science series has the boys ask Lisa to tell them how long it's going to take before a certain event occurs. In Gary's case, he wants to know when he'll lose his virginity. In Wyatt's, when he will die. Lisa conjures them watches with countdowns. Both are overjoyed. Gary will lose his virginity in a matter of days, while Wyatt has 80 years to live. In anticipation, Gary pulls out the yearbook and starts trying to hit on all the girls in his class. Wyatt starts doing reckless things, knowing he can't die. Then Lisa realizes she made a mistake and accidentally switched their watches. Gary won't lose his virginity until he's an old man, and Wyatt has only a day left to live. Fortunately, Wyatt manages to change his fate, giving Gary hope.
Nickelback's video for "Savin' Me", although it's not completely fatalistic. The protagonist is saved from stepping in front of a bus and gets a weird form of Stat-O-Vision, seeing timers counting down over the heads of people around him. At one point, he sees the numbers go to 0 above someone being wheeled into an ambulance. At the end, he spots a woman whose timer is about to run out and saves her from an accident; he walks away, task completed, while she experiences the Stat-O-Vision instead.
Mythology and Religion
The Grim Reaper is usually shown with an hourglass for everyone that shows how long they live.
Older Than Feudalism: From Greek myth, there are the Moirai, the Fate sisters, who measure out people's lifespans on their threads.
There's a Greek myth about Meleager, who was prophesied to live only until a log in the fire had burned down. His mother promptly snatched it out and extinguished it, and he kept on living until years later... when he murdered his two uncles in a fight, and his mother threw that log back in the fire. (Nobody does dysfunctional families like Greek mythology.)
The Sims 2 had the Grim Reaper, who'd have an hourglass only if your sim died of old age.
Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor gives you the Death Clock. It's a number that appears above a person's head and shows how many more days they are destined to live. Thwart a significant event involving some demons, and the number on the death clock goes up, or at least changes.
An unusual example comes up in Star Control II. One of the Melnorme you encounter possesses a device called MetaChron, which predicts its own destruction. It extends to its owner, though, considering that he keeps it in his spaceship (to be more precise, under his pillow). While having no relation to the plot by itself, the conversation about it hints that you are on a Timed Mission.
At the end of each chapter in Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, there's a brief moment where Mao announces how long it'll be before Almaz completes his transformation into a demon.
Guitar Hero has the Grim Ripper wearing an hourglass pendant while rocking out on his steel-stringed scythe.
Death in Death and the Maiden has one so he can travel in time. It becomes the MacGuffin in the sequel when it gets stolen, prompting Death to get a replacement: a wrist watch.
The hourglasses mentioned in The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy reappear in Grim Tales from Down Below, with Mandy's playing a pivotal role in the backstory. All the strange happenings in the show occurred because Mandy's hourglass had emptied, and therefore was supposed to have been reaped long ago, but Grim couldn't bring himself to do it. This rendered her effectively immortal, since the only thing that could kill her now was Grim himself. All that became moot when Mandy grew up and married Grim.
Billy's hourglass... is just strange. He does eventually die, gets into Heaven on a technicality, gets kicked out of Heaven for his stupidity, managed to scare everyone in Heck with his stupidity, and tends to either stay in Purgatory or escape for some fun.
In Futurama, the professor builds a death clock, then he forgot he invented it, and invented it a second time. The death clock says how long it will be before the person who sticks their finger in it will die.
It's fairly accurate but can be off by a few seconds due to free will and all that nonsense.
The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy has a room of life hourglasses. And if you flip it upside down, it de-ages you to child, then fetus, then nothing. If it's broken, the person immediately disappears.
Even the Grim Reaper himself has one, albeit much, much larger and filled with black sand, but we get to see him as a kid in some episodes so it makes more sense than one would think.
Also, possibly due to Achievements in Ignorance, complete idiot Billy manages to flip over Grim's giant hourglass, quickly de-aging him into oblivion.
Capital punishment. Unless you receive a pardon or stay, have your sentence commuted, or escape from prison, you will be executed at the day and time set for you by the criminal justice system.
The website http://www.tombclock.com. You enter some basic information about yourself (age, height, weight, living environment, etc.) and, using some unknown algorithm, the site will calculate the exact date of your death.
This was partially spoofed in The ITCROWD. Moss finds a similar website and calculate's Roy's death. He tries not to see it, but accidentally does and reads that it's in the next few days. Hilarity ensues as Roy starts freaking out. Then when the specified time finally comes, Roy watches the clock, and as it reaches the exact second, he starts feeling extreme pain. Turns out it was actually his extremely vibrant cell phone; Richmond was just trying to call him to find out how the funeral was going, leading him to burst into laughter in the middle of a funeral. It is implied that the website simply wasn't as reliable as Moss thought.
Jolly Rogers sometimes featured an hourglass, a common symbol for death in 17th-18th century Europe.
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Anime and Manga
In D.Gray-Man Yu Kanda possesses a similar glassed flower. Nothing is known about it, not how he acquired it, if it's reverseable, what happens when all the petals have fallen nor who's time it even counts. It's almost Fanon though, that it counts down Kanda's lifetime and belongs to a curse.
Recent chapters show that Kanda has had hallucinations of lotus flowers for many years, and that they have been a red herring all along. The thing that actually shows his lifespan appears to be a tattoo.
In another story, Akane's body is reduced to a living, but motionless doll by the power of the Kinjakan. If they can't restore her with pure Jusenkyo water before her eyes close completely, she dies. They do, but Ranma was just barely able to get the water up to her through equal amounts of skill and miracles.
In Saint Seiya, there is a clock tower in Athena's Sanctuary that measures time with bright blue flames blazing over the symbols of the Twelve Zodiac Houses. It is ignited twice. The first time is when the Bronze Saints invade the Sanctuary and must save Athena's life before all the flames wink out. The second time is when the Gold and Bronze Saints must prevent Hades' Specters from invading Athena's Sanctuary for twelve hours, which is the maximum time on Earth allotted to the newly-risen dead.
Also, Shaka keeps a Buddhist rosary with 108 beads. Each time a Specter is killed, a bead turns dark. He uses this to thoroughly freak out the Specters that arrive at the House of Virgo.
Umineko no Naku Koro ni has a clock that appears in between scenes that serves both this purpose and allowing the audience to figure out the time orientation of different scenes (sometimes, the clock goes a tiny bit backwards).
Yu-Gi-Oh!: After losing to Yami Malik in the Battle City Finals, Mai is trapped in an hourglass by the former where she will die if her captor isn't defeated in a duel within the next 24 hours.
Films — Animated
The flower in the glass with its dropping petals from Disney's Beauty and the Beast shows how long the Beast has before the curse becomes unbreakable, blooming until his 21st year.
In Aladdin, Jafar uses the "Sands of Time" to discover the one person (Aladdin) who can retrieve the lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Later, he imprisons Jasmine in the lower half of a giant hourglass, where she is in danger of suffocation due to the sand falling on her.
Films — Live-Action
The Wizard of Oz: "Do you see that? That's how much longer you've got to be alive! And it isn't long, my pretty — it isn't long!"
Logan's Run had a "life clock" crystal embedded in the palm of each citizens in the dystopian domed city. The crystal blinks ominously when the wearer reaches the age at which (s)he will be terminated (21 in the book, 30 in the movie).
Labyrinth had one in the form of the clock with 13 numbers. Sarah had 13 hours in order to get through the labyrinth, get to the castle, and get her baby brother or else he'd be turned into a goblin. (Jareth wasn't above cheating - he fast-forwarded it in one scene.) Understandably if she failed she'd probably be sent home to try to explain what happened to her brother...
In In Time, everyone has a personal death clock. However, time is used as currency, and thus can be extended. The poor race against the clock every day, while the world's richest people are effectively immortal.
The World Is Not Enough also has a jump to action version next to Renard's fatalistic one. To get revenge on M he assures her that he'll kill her the next day after she's been captured, and puts a clock in front of her cell so she can see the hours ticking by to make her experience what he feels like.
Discworld again: in Reaper Man Death is laid off by the Auditors of Reality and is given a small hourglass with a few weeks of life in the world. He demonstrates that people can "live on borrowed time" by sharing his hourglass with a little girl whose life was at risk, and later someone else repays the favor at just the right moment.
In Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse, the Incarnation of Death carries an hourglass that shows how long he has to collect his next client's soul. Subverted in that Death can actually postpone a given death briefly if his schedule demands it, although Fate will intercede if he delays things too long.
Time, naturally, is the one to bear an hourglass, but among its many powers is the ability to freeze time and thus prevent death. It never actually measures out lifespans, though book seven in the series states that each grain of sand within it does correspond to a human life.
Suspicion: There is a clock in Inspector Bärlach’s room at the hospital, counting down the time he has left until Dr. Emmenberger plans to kill, uh "operate" on him. He is saved by Gulliver.
Burai, the Dragon Ranger from Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, was killed and brought back with a limited lifespan; the spirit who revived him gave him a green candle to show how much time he had left. When the series was adapted into Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, the candle instead represented the time until Tommy's powers burned out. In both cases, the other heroes attempted to save their ally before time ran out. And in both cases, they failed; Burai indeed died, passing on his powers to his brother, while Tommy was forced to give his powers to Jason to prevent Rita from sapping them.
The video for Nickelback's "Savin' Me" begins with a twitchy-looking man saving a well-dressed man from walking in front of a car. Soon, the well-dressed man sees what the twitchy man saw—numbers over everyone's heads, counting down (and, in one case, winking out.) The end of the video confirms that those whose lives have been saved get their numbers reset, though they can't see their own numbers.
In Yu-Gi-Oh! there is the Spell Card Final Countdown, one way to achieve an Automatic Win Condition. When played, the player pays 2,000 Life Points, and in 20 turns, he wins automatically - unless his opponent defeats him first. (Because Final Countdown is a Normal Spell that does not remain on the field, the effect cannot be reversed once played, but it can be countered or negated.)
In the intro to Prince of Persia, Jaffar approaches the Princess, raises his arms, and suddenly an hourglass appears. "Marry Jaffar... or die within the hour."
When characters (well, the ones called "Players") in The World Ends with You receive a mission, they get numerical timers superimposed on their hands. If one pair doesn't complete the mission in time, they all get erased. (You, on the other hand, can Take Your Time.) At the end of the game, you find out that the Conductor also has a timer on his hand, albeit a longer one, and it runs out before he can finish.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has the titular hourglass, protecting Link from the temple's curse. But only as long as its sun-ray-charged sands keep falling. Once the hourglass runs out, Link's life force is drained, which usually results in a Game Over when you're stuck too deep in the temple. Also, in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, there's the on-screen clock, aided by the fact that the Moon is coming down slowly and it's visible from almost everywhere in the game's world. The on-screen clock eventually changes into a countdown in the game's last six minutes.
Final Fantasy games often include enemies that cast a Death Countdown spell which will instantly kill a cursed character if the battle is not over before the counter reaches zero. Failing any other option, this can often be delayed if the character is re-cursed, so the countdown is reset.
Also appears in the story of Final Fantasy XIII, where the cursed l'Cie are branded with a mark that not only identifies them as having been chosen by the fal'Cie, but also indicates how long they have to fulfill their Focus before transforming into horrifying Cie'th monsters.
Similar to the Kingdom Hearts example below, Eidolons and bosses will cast Doom on the party leader either immediately, or if the battle drags on for a long time. Only difference; the Doom Counter cannot be stopped with magic - the only way to extend it is to change the battle settings.
Kingdom Hearts I has the Phantom, who casts 'doom' on each on your party members one at a time, which consists of a glowing number appearing over their head and Big Ben itself counting down. When it reaches 0 they are KO'd. Permanently. Fortunately you can use any stop spell to delay the countdown.
Marluxia also makes use of Doom. In the third Final Boss battle he can cast this, and you have to break all the cards he draws before it goes out or game over. He also casts Doom in Final Mix +, giving a number equal to your current level. Every time he hits you with his scythe, the number goes down. You have to beat him before it hits zero.
Ghost Trick has this when you go back in time to prevent a person's death. Unique in that it only applies when Sissel goes back in time, and it only lasts four minutes, though you can increase the time left through actions that delay the death or eliminate it altogether (the ultimate goal) by preventing the death. In game it serves as a time limit to solve the puzzle.