A poor man has twelve children, and works just hard enough to feed each of them every day. When his thirteenth child is born, the man decides to find a godfather for this child. He runs out into the highway, and finds God walking on the highway. God asks to be the godfather, promising the child health and happiness. The man, after finding out that the man is God, declines, saying that God condones poverty. Then the man meets the Devil on the highway. The Devil asks to be the godfather, offering the child gold and the world's joys. The man, after finding out that the man is the Devil, declines, saying that the Devil deceives mankind.
The man, still walking down the highway, meets Death. The man decides to make Death the child's godfather saying that Death takes away the rich and the poor, without discrimination. The next Sunday, Death becomes the child's godfather.
When the boy comes of age, Death appears to him and leads him into the woods, where special herbs grow. There, the boy is promised that Death will make him a famous physician. It is explained that, whenever the boy visits an ill person, Death will appear next to the sick person. If Death stands at the persons head, that person is to be given the special herb found in the forest, and cured. But, if Death appears at the persons feet, any treatment on them would be useless as they would soon die.
The boy soon becomes famous, just as Death has foreseen and receives plenty of gold for his amazing ability to see whether a person would live or die. Soon, the King of all the lands becomes ill and sends for the famous physician.
When the physician goes to see the King, he notices immediately that Death is standing at the foot of the bed. The physician feels pity for the king, and decides to trick Death. The physician then turns the King in his bed so that Death stands over the head. He then gives the King the herb to eat. This heals the King and speeds his recovery.
Soon after, Death approaches the physician, expressing his anger for tricking him and disobeying Death's rules. But because the physician is Death's godchild, he does not punish him. Death then warns the physician that if he was to ever trick Death again, he will take the physician's life.
Not much later, the King's daughter becomes ill and the physician goes to see her as well. The King promises his daughter's hand in marriage and the inheritance of the crown if the physician cures her. When the physician visits the princess, he sees Death at her feet. Ignoring this, he is captivated by the princess's beauty and thoughts of being her husband. The physician then turns the princess so that Death is at her head. He then feeds her the herb.
Just as the princess is coming around, Death grasps the physician by the arm and drags him to an underground cavern. In this cave are thousands upon thousands of candles, each burned down to different lengths. Death explains that the length of each candle shows how much longer a person has to live. When Death shows the physician his candle, the latter notices that it is very short, showing that the physician doesn't have much longer to live.
The physician pleads with his godfather to light a new candle for him, so that he may live a happy life as king and husband to the beautiful princess. Death reconsiders and gathers a new candle to relight the flame of his godchild.
Just as he is about to light the new candle, Death takes his revenge on the physician by letting the flame of the first candle fall. As soon as the candle is extinguished, the physician falls dead to the ground.
This story was included in the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, but the first edition version included a different ending. The first edition version ended at the part of Death showing the physician the candles. The second edition version of Kinder- und Hausmärchen included the part of Death pretending to light the candle and failing on purpose, killing the physician.
- Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics adapted the story for one of its episodes, with a few alterations. Instead of God, an angel offers to be the godfather, and the greedy man refuses because angels traditionally reward souls in Heaven, while the man wants his son to be rich. It then cuts to Death. Another difference is the end, the protagonist is disgusted with the tricks from the start, and sacrifices himself to save a child princess, delaying Death and allowing her to get better.
- The Storyteller featured an episode heavily inspired by this story called "The Soldier and Death." In that telling the man isn't Death's godson, but has the same trick of healing people if death is at their head and being unable if at their feet. In that version he traps Death in a sack when he sees him at his own feet.
- Andrew Peters's Strange and Spooky Stories contains an Irish variant in which a girl makes a deal with Death to become a doctor. She betrays him to save the life of a prince, who marries her. Unlike the Grimm's version, there is a happy ending. On her wedding night, Death takes her to the afterlife and shows an hourglass that represents her life, and it shows that she will die in a few hours. She is able to trick Death into falling asleep, and then fills up her hourglass (and her husband's) to the point where they are now immortal.
- Anne Sexton wrote an adaptation as a poem called "Godfather Death" in her collection Transformations (1971), a book in which she re-envisions sixteen of the Grimm's Fairy tales.
- A similar story exists in some cultures and countries, such as Mexico and Lithuania, where Death is portrayed as female, becoming the child's godmother instead of his godfather. In at least the Mexican variant of this story, Death's godson does not come to her because it is nearing his time to die and is allowed to die, but when he falls in love with a woman, his godmother tries to warn him away from her. When he insists she explain why, she takes him to her cave in which the candles that represent all of the lives of all of humanity burn, and shows him that the candle that represents his lover's life is much shorter than his. While at first he insist it will not matter to him, when her time comes, he betrays his promise and uses the magical powers Death gave him to extend her life. In a rage, Death comes to punish him, but shows mercy to him... of a cruel sort. She blows out both her godson's candle and that of his lover, so they die at exactly the same instant.
- Another Mexican take on the story is The Third Guest of B. Traven where there is no godson but instead a woodcutter that rejects to share his food with God and the Devil but with the Death instead. After living similar situations than the godson of the original story he has his life and honor spared by Death himself. In the movie version called Macario (1960), the story ends with the death of the starring character and we learn that everything was a hallucination regarding the character dying due to eating so much.
- In a Polish variant of the tale, a boy rescues Death (a female) from a swamp, and in gratitude, she teaches him healing arts. Unlike the story collected by Brothers Grimm, a person is doomed if the Death stands near his head. The healer turns three people to save them; his own mother, a poor widow with many children, and a hero who is the only hope of his people in a desperate war. After the third case, Death shows him the cave with the fires of human lives - in this tale, oil lamps - and states that his own oil has run out; the only way for him to save himself being to pour into his lamp the oil of the three people he took from her. The doctor refuses and dies on the spot.