Lets face it, Anyone Can Die. We are all One Hit Point Wonders in a game with All Deaths Final. But we don't want to believe that, do we?
In stories, characters are usually protected from this. They tend to live Happily Ever After. If they do die, it's in a murder or disaster or big disease or something. Whatever, as long as it's something spectacular or dramatic or at least surreal, something that we don't have to worry so much that it could happen to ourselves.
There are exceptions, however. Sometimes death is sudden and mundane and comes for no good reason. A sudden brain aneurysm, quietly drown or suffocate while unconscious, any simple accident. While a Life Will Kill You death is very undramatic in itself, it's always very dramatic on an emotional level.
Sometimes this is contrasted to the character having lived through muchworse before something mundane got dangerous to a fatal level, and sometimes not. The character does NOT have to be heroic or powerful in any way, it's enough that the character lived in a setting that wasn't clearly marked Anyone Can Die. Since the trope is about how death is portrayed, it can in special cases (see the The Onion example) also cover deaths caused by aging or whatever.
Sometimes played as An Aesop about appreciating your loved ones while you still have them.
Contrast Death Is Dramatic, Surprisingly Sudden Death and Death Is Cheap. Contrast Dropped a Bridge on Him, which usually is violent and/or takes death lightly. Compare Deadly Distant Finale, Shoot the Shaggy Dog, You Can't Fight Fate and We All Die Someday.
Warning: This is a death trope, so expect spoilers.
open/close all folders
An early issue of The Sandman is devoted almost entirely to this trope. As something of a Day In The Life episode for Death, "The Sound of Her Wings" features many, many minor characters who all meet mundane ends, like electrocution, car accidents, and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
At the beginning of Brief Lives, Death comes for a man who expresses disappointment at the mundanity of his death; after surviving 15 millennia he was killed by a freak accident that could've happened to anyone.
Discussed in Fight Club: "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."
In More American Graffiti, John Milner spends the movie drag racing, only to be killed by a drunk driver as he is driving home.
Never Let Me Go: the film version ends with the protagonist thinking about how ordinary people are Not So Different after all, how we are all living our lives on death row.
In A Single Man, the main character is a gay college professor, who decides to commit suicide after his partner dies in a car accident. At the end, he decides that life is worth living after all - and promptly dies from a heart attack.
In Rangothis trope turns out to be the reason behind the mariachi leader's repeated statements regarding Rango's eventual death.
In In Time, this is played straight in the story while subverted by the setting. Within the story, characters die from the smallest mistakes, such as only keeping enough cash for the bus ride home (without knowing that the fee has been increased), or getting so absorbed in your duty that you don't take the time to refill your clock when you have the chance. On the political level, however, it is made clear that the system has been engineered for these kinds of mistakes to occur. The government is murdering their citizens on a genocidal level, while building in an element of randomization as an excuse to pretend that it's the victim's own fault.
In Last Action Hero, The Grim Reaper from the Seventh Seal movie appears in the real world and does what the Grim Reaper tends to do. When he confronts the protagonist he tells him that he will die. For one moment, the kid thinks he is going to be reaped, but the Grim Reaper just tells him he'll die as a grandfather.
A special content in Final Destination 3 DVD revolved around various causes of death, from the most unlikely to the most probable. The ending was simply "Chances of dying - 1:1".
Discussed in Patton. At the end of the movie the eponymous general nearly has a car accident, and he mentions how ironic it would be for someone to live through the worst of World War II only to die in a random car accident. This is an allusion to how the Real Life Patton died.
In Defending Your Life romantic lead Julia mentions dying by tripping over a lounge chair and drowning in the pool. After not only having been a very accomplished swimmer, but also lived adventurously and risked her life heroically more than once. (She's shown rescuing some people from a burning building, only to run back inside and return with the dog.) She finds the irony frustrating.
In the first Erast Fandorin novel, Count Zurov tells the protagonist about a friend he had once, an army officer who participated in the most brutal fights but died in the peacetime of an accidental alcohol poisoning.
In Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, the final chapter concerns an army officer who shot himself in the head on a bet to prove there is no destiny (the pistol jammed), and then was killed by a drunk Cossack a few hours later.
A character in one of Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels survives numerous conflicts and then dies after slipping on a stone staircase. One of his disbelieving friends cries "death should be more difficult."
Discworld: One of the seven barbarian heroes chronicled in Interesting Times dies from... Choking on a concubine (err... cucumber). This is what urges the rest of the group to seek a more glorious death for themselves (even though they have effectively settled down at the end of the previous book) in The Last Hero.
Also, Death is stated to believe that everyone is dying, and everyone will die, because of this trope, which makes asking him whether or not your current prognosis is terminal a moot point.
We see this happening to Auditors who start developing traits associated with being alive. This is justified in universe in that Auditors, not being alive, can exist for ever, but being alive implies that you will one day be dead and thus have a finite existence. Because any finite number is minute compared to infinity, any Auditor that appears to have begun to live will instantly die.
Hogfather plays with this by having several Auditors turn into vicious dogs in order to interfere directly with events. They are horrified to discover that life is addictive and that they can't turn back, and because they are now alive they are now also no longer immune from Death (who is, by this point in the story, royally pissed off at them...)
Death: it gets under your skin, life. metaphorically speaking of course. and the more you struggle for the next moment the more alive you become... which is where I come in, as a matter of fact.
In Stephen King's novel Duma Key, protagonist Edgar defeats an evil force with the help of his best friend, Wireman. They both survive the encounter, but Wireman suddenly dies of a heart attack a few months after.
Live Action TV
Invoked in almost every episode of House, and far from always subverted by the doctor somehow managing to save the patient anyway.
Common in Dead Like Me. Since the main characters work in the External Influence department, old-age deaths are still rare, but their clients' causes of death include auto accidents, diving-board mishaps, aggravation of an existing spinal injury, and falling space-station shrapnel (more interesting, but still sudden and pointless).
The best example is when they're in a bank waiting on a death to occur. As the time gets closer, a bunch of armed bank robbers rush in, while at the same time, a wife catches her husband having an affair with a coworker. With all this tension going on, murder or an accidental shooting seems imminent... but no, the whole situation manages to resolve itself peacefully. So who dies? The guy who walks in ten seconds later to cash his paycheck, slips on the floor and breaks his neck in the revolving door.
Made all the more frustrating for the team as four people confess to killing the man, only to have to be let go as their method ultimately wasn't the cause of his death.
Only the poisoning via seafood couldn't be argued as self-defense. This one was attempted murder and could probably be charged as such.
Referenced in the Firefly episode "The Message," in which the eponymous message from one of Mal's old war buddies includes the declaration that "We went to war never looking to come back, but it's the real world I couldn't survive." Subverted somewhat in that he's not actually dead, and while he does get himself killed by the end of the episode, it's not a mundane death.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's mother is simply dead one day. While the audience shouldn't be surprised by a death (in the Buffy-verse, at any rate), it was totally unexpected that she died the way she did. One episode ends with Buffy coming home, and her mother is dead on the floor. The next episode is called "The Body", and quickly reveals that it was a simple aneurysm - caused by complications from a procedure to remove a brain tumor.
Bonus points that everyone was so surprised and unsettled that it wasn't anything extraordinary. Xander, especially, is shaken, saying things likes this don't just happen.
Played with in Angel where one of the prophesies concerning the eponymous vampire is that he will "save the world, then die." Eventually it's revealed that a more accurate translation would be "save the world, then eventually die in the sense that you will become a mortal human again, which is kind of what you've been hoping for ever since you got your soul back."
A similar thing was done later in the series with Eve. She spends an entire episode hiding from Hamilton, claiming that if he finds her he'll kill her. When he catches up to her, he just severs her contract. When asked why she said she would die if he caught her, Eve answers that now that she's mortal, some day she will.
Doctor Who, in the episode "Tooth and Claw": When Queen Victoria mentions the legend that anyone who possesses the Koh-i-Noor diamond must surely die, the Tenth Doctor points out that that's true of anything if you take a long enough view.
The Weeping Angels' victims. The Angels won't (usually) kill you, instead they'll send you back in time and you end up dead in present time simply from living out what was left of your life.
On I Dream of Jeannie, Tony accidentally releases the Blue Djinn, who had decided to kill whomever finally freed him from his bottle. When the Djinn asks him how he wishes to die, Tony nervously says "Of old age." The Djinn isn't falling for it.
Given a nod in the episode of The Golden Girls where Dorothy has what is ultimately diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. After being told by a number of doctors that there's nothing really wrong with her and even told by one that it's all in her head, she gets an examination by her neighbor, Harry Weston (a pediatrician), because he's the only doctor she knows she can trust.
Dorothy: Am I going to die, Harry?
Harry: I'm afraid so.
Harry: Sooner or later, I guarantee it.
The X-Files: In "Beyond the Sea", Scully's father dies of a heart attack, probably the most normal death in the whole series. Ironically, by the time Scully has accepted the fact that nobody can escape death ("Tithonus"), she has become immortal.
This was the reason behind Tasha Yar getting a Red Shirt death instead of an "Our hero saves the universe and goes out with a final quip" sort of death when her actress left Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was intended as a Reality Ensues moment - the point was that it was pointless. However, fans don't like it that realistic when it comes to their character getting bridge'd. She returns in an Alternate Universe episode, and gets a much better ending (though most likely still won't survive.)
Invoked by Q in Tapestry. Picard asks if being spared being stabbed in the heart means he won't die. Q retorts, "Of course you'll die! Just at a later date."
In a few strips of Dilbert, Dogbert tried a stint as a fortuneteller. In an attempt to give an infallible prediction, he told Dilbert that he will eventually die.
In Exalted, even the most glorious Solar Exalt will die if he live long enough. The discovery of this rule led to great dismay/sobering amongst the first generation of post-Primordial War Solars. Attempting to avert this is the reason the Scarlet Empress fell into the Ebon Dragon's claws. Doesn't apply to Abyssals who suffer from Eternal Death, as well as Infernals who become Primordial 2.0.
On a more specific note, there are cases like Chejop Kejak (the lead Sidereal who fears what will become of his faction when he succumbs to old age), the fact that several potential candidates to the Scarlet Throne are discounted on the basis that they're too close to the end of their lives, and Ingosh Silverclaws (an extremely prominent Lunar) having passed away shortly before the start of the game's introduction point.
In Disgaea, it's mentioned that the previous Overlord, Laharl's father, an incredibly powerful demon who'd taken on the worst that Heaven and Hell could throw at him and won died... from choking on a pretzel. Or maybe not.
Fallout: The "bad ending" for Junktown has town villain Gizmo taking charge and becoming an untouchable crime boss, until he chokes to death on a iguana-on-a-stick.
Invoked in Fallout: New Vegas, when Caesar offers the Courier the chance to determine how Benny will die. When asked, Benny chooses to die of old age, in his bed, preferrably after a marathon session of sex with a pair of prostitutes. Whether or not this works is up to the player.
In Icewind Dale, one boss states that the world is dying. Why? Because it is living.
Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a much-feared assassin who comes to controlling the entire Mediterranean region throughout Assassin's Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations, dies of a heart attack at an advanced age after years of idleness. Which is just the way he wanted it as he had chosen to give up the life of being an assassin years ago.
However, there are theories that he was, in fact, poisoned by a man he talked to moments before dying, as seen in Embers.
Similarly, Altair is about ninety or so when his story finally ends. The last command the player gives him is "Sit a moment and rest..."
At the end of Metal Gear Solid 4 Snake meets with his father Big Boss at Arlington National Cemetery where they make up for lost time. At this point Snake is going to die within a year's time, at best, due to preprogrammed Clone Degeneration that has accelerated his aging, and Big Boss is going to die because of a virus that is programmed to kill him. Naturally one of the questions that Snake asks of his father is, "Am I going to die?" Big Boss' response is a simple one, "Everyone dies. There is nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing you can do to run away from it. All that's important is that you don't waste the time you have left."
Dwarf Fortress: There's a pretty damn big chance your legendary axedwarf won't die in an epic battle worthy of history, but rather will get caught in a cave-in, drown/burn in a badly engineered cistern/magma reservoir, or simply dodge off a ledge and fall head-first.
In this article in The Onion, all death is treated as totally unexpected, with people being surprised and horrified that people actually can die from aging.
One of the Hitler Ate Sugar tactics used on the Justice League by some talk show host was as follows: "Since the Justice League has been around, 50% of marriages ended in divorce, the other 50%... in death!" Of course to him it was just business nothing else.