The Grim Reaper is the personification of death. Many cultures have some version of this figure, who may also be known as the Angel of Death, with this figure humanizing the experience of death and being designed to reduce the fear of death. The term “Grim Reaper” is most commonly used in Western culture, and this figure is associated with some very specific visual symbolism. Depictions of the personification of death date back to at least Greek times, when he took a young man's form and was known as Thanatos, and artworks from earlier cultures also suggest that death was personified in other ways and under other names.
The symbolism most closely associated with the Grim Reaper today appears to have emerged in medieval Europe. This figure is always depicted as a man. In some regions, this figure wears a black hooded cloak, while in other instances, he takes the form of a skeleton. Traditionally, the Reaper holds a scythe, representing the fact that he is coming to harvest lives, and in some depictions, he also holds an hourglass, representing the inevitable passage of time which will eventually lead to death.
People do not literally see the Grim Reaper when they die, or if they do, they haven't mentioned it. This figure is instead used as a metaphorical representation of death in works of art, including poetry and fiction. In the Medieval era in particular, people had a fascination with death which was intertwined with fear, probably because of the pandemic diseases which swept Europe repeatedly during this period, and the Grim Reaper was commonly depicted in drawings and paintings of people who were near death.
In some parts of the West, the Reaper is said to bring about death, which creates the possibility of tricking or cheating death. In other areas, he is simply a guide who helps the soul part with the world and the body, leading the soul into the afterlife. Some myths about the Grim Reaper suggest that he occasionally appears to show someone the error of their ways, giving them visions of the future and a warning that they will die or suffer torment in the afterlife if they continue along their current path.
Well through the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was also commonly included on headstones in some form or another, such as the winged death's heads seen on many Colonial graves. The Grim Reaper continues to show up in political cartoons which depict death, and he has even become a pop culture figure, showing up in songs, television shows, and films from many eras. People may also dress in black cloaks on Halloween, costuming themselves as the Angel of Death and thereby reducing the fear of death.