who the beggar or the emperor?
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death."
We all die someday, and we will all be treated equally by and in it. It doesn't matter if you're a master or a slave, a sinner or a saint, man or woman, a bishop or knave, white or black—everyone is all treated the same. Hence why death is often called "The Great Leveler", for all and their distinctions are levelled. Either the funerals or the afterlife (if any) must be the same for everyone, whichever is used last in the work.
It's an old theme in medieval art with the Danse Macabre, which reminded the living that death comes to all and that all earthly glories will vanish, but it can also take other expressions.
Note that this goes one step further than that everyone is going to die—everyone must be treated the same as well. Even a statement that everybody is judged the same way implies a weakening of this trope. If everyone has the same funeral, but then go to different afterlives, then the trope is subverted. Put another way, this is An Aesop that all differences among people are erased upon death.
This is also one reason Balancing Death's Books is a viable option when Death comes to collect a soul: If everyone's equal, then there's no problem subbing one person for another.
See also Cessation of Existence, No Animosity in the Afterlife, and Only One Afterlife. Not to be confused with Together in Death. Contrast Species-Specific Afterlife for one situation where different types of people are treated quite differently after death. Contrast also Immortality and, in particular, Immortality Seeker.
Because this is a Death Trope, there will be spoilers ahead.
- In Death Note, Ryuk literally says, in the English translation anyway, "Death is equal." Everyone is treated exactly the same upon death in that universe, because they all go to Mu--nothingness.
- In Death Parade it's very much averted with the deceased that are sent to the arbiters and play games that determine their fate; there's often a fairly large imbalance between players' skills and experience in the games they're made to play, giving a clear indication of who's meant to win. As Decim says, "Life is unfair." Of course, this is all deliberately done to put the players through a high-stress scenario, to see how they react under the pressure. Considering that there's no rules against assault, it means that a pro can lose by virtue of being unconscious after a beating.
- Sunako from Shiki holds this view on death:
Sunako: "I think death is equally terrible for everyone. Young people, old people, the good, the bad, it's always the same. It's rather fair in it's treatment. There is no such thing as a particularly terrible death. And that's why it's frightening. Your behavior and your age, your personality, your wealth, your beauty or personal beliefs, all the things that add up to make us who we are. They only matter while we are alive. Death makes every one of them null and void. So any death is terrible."
- A central plot point in Monster. Johan Liebert's goal is to show Tenma this. He also believes that when he dies he'll be redeemed. The reason why he is the monster makes it because he refuses redemption in life due to this belief.
- The Danse Macabre of mediaeval Christian art was meant to evoke this trope.
- The Death trump, in some older tarot decks, depicts The Grim Reaper standing or riding over the severed heads of a king and a bishop as well as a commoner.
- La Calavera Catrina, the Trope Codifier for Calacas in Mexican art, depicts the skeleton of a Mexican woman in faux-French garb. The image satirized Mexicans attempting to pass themselves off as white Europeans, the skeleton signifying that their false status would eventually crumble upon death.
- Death from The Sandman is a rather benevolent version of this trope, she never misses the opportunity to say that everybody dies at the end, but for the same reason and since she knows everything about everyone, she never hates anyone, they are all the same to her but because she knows them all.
- In an early Life in Hell Binky tells a sleepless Bongo that "Death is the only thing that's fair, because everybody dies, and everybody stays dead the same amount of time: forever." Ironically this proves a lot more comforting for little Bongo than Binky himself.
- The Seventh Seal ends with the deceased characters — from a range of walks of life — forming a Danse Macabre on the horizon.
- In History of the World Part I, a court official whispers over and over, "Remember, thou art mortal!" at Marcus, after having won a great victory.note . Marcus exasperatedly just retorts, "Oh, blow it out your ass!"
- In the end of Glory, all the men of the 54th that were killed in the assault on the fortification are shown being dumped in a mass grave by the Confederates, white officers and black enlisted alike.
- In the end of Gangs of New York, all of the victims from the Draft Riots get the same barebones burial, despite their race, nationality, social class, or gang alliance.
- Part of the really dark alternate ending of Heathers, that was changed after Executive Meddling. After Veronica kills J.D., stopping him from blowing up everyone in the school, she ignites the bombs herself. All the kids, no matter their clique, appearance, or background, are then shown interacting peacefully in heaven. The trope is lampshaded in the film, when J.D. says:
Let's face it, all right! The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.
- Les Misérables (2012) contains the following lyrics:
Gavroche: This was the land that fought for liberty
Now when we fight, we fight for bread.
Here is the thing about equality:
Everyone's equal when they're dead.
- The epilogue of Barry Lyndon reads "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled: good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now". See also the original novel.
- In Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the Grim Reaper makes it very clear:
You may be a king, or a simple street sweeper
But sooner or later you dance with the Reaper.
- In Odds Against Tomorrow, the last two criminals shoot it out after a botched robbery. One is Black (Harry Belafonte) and the other is a White bigot (Robert Ryan). They wind up setting off gasoline and both are fried. When one policeman asks which is which, another shrugs. They'll never know and it doesn't matter now. Incidentally this a big "message", because in the book the White bigot could have gotten away but went back to rescue the Black criminal (and both are killed).
- Invoked by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War when he explains to Doctor Strange the rationale behind his plan to kill half the universe's population. The process would have been completely random and indiscriminate, free of bias towards race, gender, rich or poor, weak or powerful, and therefore in Thanos's mind, fair. When he succeeds, those who die at the end are crumbling into dust in the same way.
- In the fairy tale "Godfather Death", a poor man looks for a godfather for his newborn; having rejected God's offer because God favors the rich and neglects the poor, he happily accepts Death as a godfather, because Death "makes everyone equal" and "takes rich and poor alike, without distinction". While originally played straight, the later edition adds a line that this reflects the man's ignorance more than anything, since traditionally the poor get the last laugh in Heaven.
- In the World of the Five Gods series by Lois McMaster Bujold, every soul is picked up by one of the gods at their death, regardless of status or faith, and which god is shown in a miracle at their funeral. Then explored in the third book, The Hallowed Hunt, where certain souls are shown to be impossible for the gods to pick up, and the trouble is about how to make them pickable again.
- A theme of Lois McMaster Bujold's short story "Aftermaths", showing the crew of a space ship that is out reclaiming the dead bodies after a space battle.
- Invoked in-universe in The Elenium, when Sparhawk has to sneak into the catacombs under the Cimmura Cathedral.
- Referenced in the first chapter of The Luck of Barry Lyndon: "It was in the reign of George II that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled: good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." Note that this lists another king than in the film version.
- Stories in the Arabian Nights sometimes end with "and so they lived happily until Death, the destroyer of happiness, who comes for rich and poor alike, came for them."
- Boba Fett in Tales of the Bounty Hunters invokes this with the opening line of his story, "The Last Man Standing": "Everyone dies. It's the final and only lasting justice." This is repeated throughout the story.
- In one of the later Gaunt's Ghosts novels, a company of ghosts are on their way to their post when they realize that the barren field they are in is supposed to be a forest, which has been bombed into nonexistence. One of the Tanith notes "Behold the leveling glories of field artillery, beneath which all things are rendered equal."
- According to canine mythology in Survivors, all beings become one with the Earth-Dog after they die. Their spirits ascend and live together with all the other spirits.
- In The Dark Profit Saga the god of Death, Mordo Ogg, gives nobody special treatment, not even his few clerics.
- Detarr Ur'Mayan's Head of Marketing pitches the phrase as a recruiting slogan for the undead horde, but the focus group points out that undead are not created equal. The horde has a de facto caste system with basic skeletons and zombies at the bottom, ghouls, wraiths, and vampires above them, and Detarr the liche on top. That also gets them thinking about what type of undead Tyren, Detarr's right-hand skeleton, really is, particularly whether he might have risen as a revenant for attempting to desert.
- The M*A*S*H episode "Follies of the Living - Concerns of the Dead" is told from the POV of a dead soldier. At the end of the episode he walks down the road toward the afterlife along with all the other dead - U.S. soldiers of various ranks, North Korean soldiers, civilians, etc.
- The Twilight Zone episode "The Passersby" depicts a similar scenario with American Civil War dead, ending with Abraham Lincoln
- Bones: In "The Titan on the Tracks", a rich industrialist faked his death, then was beaten severely by his accomplice in order to cover his (the accomplice's) participation. The following takes place in his hospital room:
Brennan: When can we talk to him?
Doctor: Any time you want, as long as you don't expect a response. This man has severe brain damage. Off the record, he's not going to wake up. Best case scenario, he spends the rest of his life hooked up to feeding tubes.
Brennan: This is one of the richest men in the country.
Doctor: Most of the time, that might mean something. Not now.
- In the BBC docudrama Pompeii: The Last Day, slaves and masters alike die side by side and many people whom would never have interacted with each other otherwise, form close bonds in their last moments.
- Game of Thrones: In "Walk Of Punishment", Missandei explains a dying slave's desire to die when Daenerys asks by saying "There are no masters in the grave, your grace."
- "Twenty Tons of TNT" by Flanders and Swann, which is about a nuclear apocalypse. The trope is referenced directly in the last verse:
Ends the tale that has no sequel
Twenty tons of TNT.
Now in death are all men equal
Twenty tons of TNT.
Teach me how to love my neighbour,
Do to him as he to me;
Share the fruits of all our labour
Twenty tons of TNT.
- A Lifetime Of War by Sabaton, which is about the soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years' War.
When they face death they're all alike
No right or wrong
Rich or poor
No matter who they served before
Good or bad
They're all the same
Rest side-by-side now...
- "Dirt In The Ground" from Tom Waits' Bone Machine
Ask a king or a beggarand the answer they'll giveis we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground
- Queen's "Hammer to Fall."
Rich or poor or famous, for your truth it's all the same!
- "Cry of the Banshee" by Brocas Helm:
Banshee howling in the city means a knight has died
For what reason, for what glory?
Who knows for what pride?
Country, king, or criminal
War or vengeance, what the Hell?
Death is all the same
If he died in shame or honor
Who on Earth can tell?
- This is the theme of "My Boy Builds Coffins" by Florence + the Machine. It's about a man who builds coffins:
My boy builds coffins for the rich and the poor
Kings and queens have all knocked on his door
Beggers and liars, gypsies and thieves
They all come to him because he's so eager to please
(...) He's made one for himself, one for me too
One of these days he'll make one for you
- The American folk song "O'Death" is about how death doesn't care who you are and how the singer wishes death will pass over them at least this year.
- The British folk song "The Shaking of the Sheets", best known these days by the Steeleye Span version:
Bring away the beggar, bring away the king,
And every man in his degree.
Bring away the oldest and the youngest thing,
Come to death and follow me.
- In Pathfinder, once a person dies their mind and soul become a being called a petitioner. While there might be some differences in their appearance or certain abilities depending on where they end up going in the afterlife, all petitioners are only a Combat Rating 1. Skill with weapons, languages, magic, it's all left behind, making the strongest centuries-old archmage exactly as powerful as a child after they're both dead.
- Hamlet: "Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service — two dishes, but to one table. That's the end."
Death: My order is to destroy, I do it coldly.
And you belong to me, young and old.
- Once he's fully gone 'round the bend and turned Axe-Crazy, Eddie of Silent Hill 2 espouses this as part of the reason why he's gone on a killing spree.
Eddie: Maybe they're right. Maybe I am nothing but a fat, disgusting piece of shit. But you know what? It don't matter whether you're smart, dumb, ugly or pretty... It's all the same once you're dead!!
- In chapter one of The Legend of Dragoon, examining a dead Sandora soldier in the Seventh Fortress will cause Dart to comment that there are no enemies in death, and wishing that the Sandoran rest in peace.
- Dark Souls 2: Grave Warden Agdayne makes a speech about this: "Countless souls rest here, in peace. Some were rich, others poor. Some bright, some dull, but now they're all just dead. Death is equitable, accepting."
- Anubis in Gargoyles speaks with a pretty heavy level of responsibility regarding his job, and doesn't take kindly to being imprisoned by Emir. It's detailed in this scene:
Anubis: On the contrary, death is the ultimate fairness. Rich and poor, young and old, all are equal in death. You would not like to see the Jackal God play favorites. Think what you are doing: all over the world there is birth, but no death. Our planet cannot support so many lives at once.
- Islamic funeral customs are, as defined in Sharia law, austere and egalitarian. The body is washed in a ritual way, and then shrouded in simple cotton cloths. The grave should be marked with only a simple marker, if any, and no casket should be used. See the other wiki for more details.
- Similarly, in Jewish tradition, the deceased, regardless of socioeconomic status in life, is dressed in a simple white shroud and prayer shawl, and buried in a plain, unvarnished pine coffin.
- A story from Ancient Greece claims that Alexander the Great once encountered Diogenes picking through bones. When Alexander asked what the philosopher was doing, Diogenes (founder of the Cynics) replied, "I'm looking for the bones of your father, but I can't tell them apart from those of his slave."
- An Italian proverb loosely translates as, "After the game, the king and pawn go to the same box."
- Moravians, a Protestant Christian sect, bury their dead in special cemeteries called God's Acre. Members of the congregation are placed under flat headstones of identical proportions and material to show that in death God does not recognize the rich from the poor. In addition, they are not buried with other family members but in sections called choirs, with others of the same gender, age, and marital status to show they are all part of the same family of God.
- When a Roman general would celebrate victories, a slave called an "auriga" would be positioned by him to whisper, "Remember, you are mortal."
- The Chapel of Bones in Portugal has a message at the entrance: "We bones that are here, for yours await", and has a poem inside with this stanza:
Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.