The final installment of the Harry Potter series is filled with death. A number of favorite characters meet their end in this novel, including Harry himself—though Harry's return to life raises even more questions about what death truly means, particularly in terms of Dark magic and sacrifice. By looking at how people consider death and, specifically, how and when people fear death, the novel suggests that it's futile to fear it—and that through accepting one's mortality, a person can not only find more meaning in their own life, but also improve the lives of others.
Throughout the series, Dumbledore has made it clear to Harry that Voldemort fears death more than anything else and to a greater degree than almost any other person. This is why Voldemort set about learning the Dark magic necessary to split his soul into seven parts and encase these parts in objects; according to the theory behind the magic, this means that Voldemort cannot truly die until all of the Horcruxes are also destroyed. However, the novel is quick to show that there's a great deal of danger involved with splitting one's soul, as well as an extremely high cost: creating a Horcrux requires killing another person, something that the novel suggests deprives a person of their humanity and makes them less than human. In other words, to become effectively immortal through Horcruxes is to become something other than human—which Voldemort, who is snakelike and impossibly, inhumanly cruel—demonstrates in the extreme.
While the theory behind the Horcruxes draws out one reasonably effective (if horrific) way to achieve immortality, the novel overwhelmingly makes the case that seeking immortality is a fool's errand, even if technically, it can be done. It does this most poignantly through its exploration of the Deathly Hallows, three objects that, together, allow a person to "cheat death." "The Tale of the Three Brothers," a story in the children's book The Tales of Beedle the Bard, tells of three brothers who met a version of Death at a bridge and who accepted three gifts from Death: a wand more powerful than any other; a stone capable of bringing back the dead; and a true invisibility cloak with which to hide from Death. The story then shows how the wand and the stone prove deadly and unsatisfying when used for selfish means, while the brother who asked for the cloak simply uses it to hide until he's ready to die—and then passes it on to his child and greets Death happily. As a relatively simple morality tale, "The Tale of the Three Brothers" makes the case that immortality isn't a valid goal at all—rather, a better goal when it comes to death is to die on one's own terms, leaving loved ones with the tools and the wisdom to eventually do the same.
Harry sees, again and again, that the third brother in the story was the only one with the right idea—though within the context of the full-on war taking place in the Wizarding world, this sometimes means that dying on one's own terms entails sacrificing oneself for the cause, not dying a peaceful death in old age. The Auror Mad-Eye Moody, for example, is one of the first members of the Order of the Phoenix to die. While Moody certainly didn't want to die, he died doing what he believed in and standing up for the greater good.
Thanks to the memories that Snape gives to Harry in the moments before he dies, Harry discovers that all of what he's seen and, particularly, all of the clues that Dumbledore left for him in terms of what it means to die have huge consequences for Harry: Harry himself is the final Horcrux, and so in order to defeat Voldemort, he must allow Voldemort to kill him. In doing this, Harry must become the exact opposite of Voldemort in that he willingly accepts his death, knowing that dying will save the rest of humanity—while Voldemort wants to use his immortality to subjugate all of humanity.
What Harry learns in the brief, dream-like time in which he's dead is that he was successfully able to complete this task because of his compassion, his goodness, and his ability to love—in other words, all the things that make him human. Greeting death as the third brother did means that Harry also gets the opportunity to choose to continue living and, in doing so, finish his quest and do away with Voldemort and his dangerous ideas about immortality for good. Through Harry's sacrifices and the sacrifices of others, Rowling makes it clear that dying is an essential, intrinsic part of being human. For Harry, sacrificing himself is what turns him into a being that is truly human and, for the first time in sixteen years, truly himself, separate from Voldemort—something that, in turn, will allow Harry to eventually greet death again, on his own terms, as a truly mortal man.
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Mortality and Sacrifice Quotes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
"'The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death'..." A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. "Isn't that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?"
"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, her voice gentle. "It means...you know...living beyond death. Living after death."
Ron looked a little embarrassed, but said in a low voice, "Dumbledore...the doe? I mean," Ron was watching Harry out of the corners of his eyes, "he had the real sword last, didn't he?"
Harry did not laugh at Ron, because he understood too well the longing behind the question. The idea that Dumbledore had managed to come back to them, that he was watching over them, would have been inexpressibly comforting. He shook his head.
And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out, that he would keep going to the end, even though it was his end, because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn't he? Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it.
"Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"