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Matter of Life and Death

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Sometimes, things really are serious.

The stock situation — and Stock Phrase — is a Matter of Life and Death. The Obstructive Bureaucrat is prone to get this flung in his face when causing a Restricted Rescue Operation. Although considerable variation is allowed in the face of different situations: whatever the problem is (or problems are) can be used instead.

People on your side who do not take it seriously — such as the Cavalier Competitor — may also be told "This is Not a Game."


When the stock phrase is used erroneously, it's probably an example of Serious Business.

Not to be confused with the 1946 David Niven movie A Matter of Life and Death or the 2006 Iron Maiden album of the same name. Definitely should not be confused with the Wallace & Gromit short, "A Matter of Loaf and Death".


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     Fan Fiction  

  • In Fire Burns, Katherine is convincing James to let her into the Gryffindor common room. James is being difficult.
    James: Come back tomorrow. If it's that important, I'm sure you'll still remember it.
    Katherine: It's very important, James.
    James: Oh yeah? A matter of life and death, I suppose.
    Katherine: (smiling unpleasantly) Damn straight.


  • The Big Lebowski:
    Walter Sobchak: I'm saying, I see what you're getting at, Dude, he kept the money. My point is, here we are, it's shabbas, the sabbath, which I'm allowed to break only if it's a matter of life or death...
  • A Clockwork Orange:
    Alex: Missus! It's a matter of life and death!
  • Ever After: An old man convinces Prince Henry to retrieve a treasure stolen by a gypsy as "it is my life." Henry is not pleased to learn after that it was a painting.
    Prince Henry: You claimed it was a matter of life and death.
    Old Man: A woman always is, sire. [Unrolls the painting to reveal the Mona Lisa.]
  • Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian:
    The Thinker statue: 'I'll tell you what's the matter of life and death: THAT GIRL OVER THERE.
  • The Wild Thornberrys movie. Eliza says this to her boarding school roommate when she has to leave.



  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Ghostmaker, Dorden has authority to go into the ship's supplies, and yells at someone trying to check up on him: he is trying to get medical supplies for a soldier in critical condition.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat. The con-man title character says this while posing as a League Admiral, then quietly reprimands himself for over-playing his part.
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Lost, when Miranda complains about Mab's driving, he says she had told him it was a matter of life and death.
  • In Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rachel uses this on her father to convince him that Percy is in danger.
  • In Sandy Mitchell's Cain's Last Stand, Ciaphas Cain, hearing Magos Tayber wants to talk to him, knows it's a matter of life and death because she didn't vox him.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Mort, Mort wakes up Ysabelle in the middle of the night and demands she come help him, urging that it's a matter of life and death. (Death had vanished.)
  • In Angie Sage's Septimus Heap book Flyte, Jenna insists on a message being sent because it's a matter of life and death. Later, when Marcia and Aunt Zelda quarrels, it's on the grounds that it's a matter of life and death.
  • In Poul Anderson's "Marque and Reprisal", a spokesman speaks of how the issues before them are of life and death.
  • In Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Renegades, Thena reflects on how treating the mentally ill started only after it became feasible; before, when they could threaten the existence of the tribe, they were probably killed.
  • Goodbye, Mickey Mouse by Len Deighton. A married woman rings the US airbase demanding that the American pilot she had an affair with get in contact with her immediately. On being asked if this is a matter of life and death, she shrieks that it is and hangs up. When the pilot goes round to her house, he finds that her husband who's returned from fighting in Burma forced her to make the call at gunpoint as he's planning a Murder-Suicide of all three parties.
  • In Seanan McGuire's October Daye novels
    • Rosemary And Rue: when Devin withdraws his offer of a freebie for help, Toby's not surprised; this was a matter of life and death, not something trivial.
    • One Salt Sea: Walther asks how important it is — nice to know or life and death — and Toby tells him life and death.
  • In Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novel Whose Body?, Sir Julian Freke runs up when Parker is getting in a cab, blathering that he needs to go and it's a matter of life and death.
    • In Clouds of Witness, Mary comes looking for Peter on the grounds it's a matter of life and death.
    • In Gaudy Night, Harriet talks of her undergraduate days, when she had believed that the only spirits on the college were kept under lock and key for life-and-death emergencies.
  • Super Powereds: Nick invokes this in year 2 for the final battle. With the entire team (especially Vince) in danger of washing out, Nick knows they need an impressive win against people who have been beating them all year. So he blackmails one of his opponents into brainwashing Vince into seeing the objective as an innocent in need of protection, and all the other students as inhuman monsters trying to kill her. Vince proceeds to prove himself the most powerful student in the school by a wide margin.
    Many of the students would one day look back at this day, their final match of sophomore year, as the moment when they finally understood what it was they were aspiring toward. The matches they'd had previously, while difficult, had been controlled by their very nature. There were always safeguards, always rules, always a set number of variables to be accounted for. In the last five minutes of this match, none of that was true. It was their first taste of true battle. There was no order, no simple objectives. There was only chaos, and fear, and violence.
    And fire. All of them would remember that quite clearly. There was so very much fire.

     Live Action TV  

  • Heroes ('Unexpected'):
    Matt Parkman: [To Ted] Hey, I only came here because you said this was a matter of life and death. You can't go blowing anything more up.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation ("The Price"}:
    Devinoni Ral: Yes - protection. Your protection, your captain, your crew, your...edge. Yes. Now, it's a matter of life and death when you take the advantage; me...I deal in property - exchanges. Nobody gets hurt. So you tell me - which one of us would you say has more of a problem with ethics?
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) ('Perchance to Dream'):
    Narrator: [opening narration] Twelve o'clock noon. An ordinary scene, an ordinary city. Lunchtime for thousands of ordinary people. To most of them, this hour will be a rest, a pleasant break in the day's routine. To most, but not all. To Edward Hall, time is an enemy, and the hour to come is a matter of life and death.
  • Spoofed in Get Smart. Maxwell Smart is trapped in a phone booth that's flooding with water. He tries to ring Control for help, but finds he's run out of quarters.
    Smart: Operator, this is a matter of life and death!
    Operator: That's what they all say.
  • On Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth consistently refers to one of these in text messages as "a matter of land" (she means "l" and "d"). People mostly wind up wondering what land has to do with anything.

     Newspaper Comics  

  • When Frank and Ernest are opticians visited by Superman, who misjudged distance and nearly fell into a building, they cheerfully observe that it's a matter of life and depth.

     Video Games  

  • Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Game:
    Vault Dweller: I would much rather tell him in person. It's a matter of life and death.

     Web Comics  


     Western Animation  

  • A good line from The Penguins of Madagascar comes from when Julian busts into the penguins home while they're busy. "This better be a matter of life or death, Ringtail. Because if not, then we can arrange those stakes!"


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