It had been a while since anyone had croaked, but last week saw the 20th PC death in my regular campaign. It hurt, too. Pandion, a Greek Magic-User we fondly envisaged as being played in the movie of the campaign by a late-middle aged Sean Connery, had navigated those difficult early spellcaster levels, and made his way up to level 5. His combination of Web, Fireball, Magic-Missile and ESP had become an important feature of the party's dungeoneering arsenal, and it was always felt by the womenfolk of the campaign world in particular that beneath his salt-and-pepper good looks and suave charm his personality also had hidden, profound depth.
But when you've only got a maximum of 9 hit points, you're only ever a critical hit or so away from death. And so it proved: a random encounter with not-all-that-powerful enemies on level 2 of the dungeon, which should have been relatively easily dealt with, turned tragic in the Steinerian sense, reminding us all of the fundamental incomprehensibility of the universe, and also that even a band of PCs of 5th-6th level are not invulnerable to 2 HD foes in early editions of D&D.
I am convinced that the way I handle death (ie when you're dead, you're dead, and that's that) is the right way of doing things. PCs are unconscious at 0 hp and permanently dead at -1, and they roll their hp at each level, including level 1. The players know that what happens in the campaign is for keeps, and it gives everything, even the most mundane random encounter, an added frisson - you just never know.
I don't do this because I'm a harsh DM and enjoy throwing my weight around. Far from it. As soon as anybody loses a PC, I more or less immediately let them get back in the saddle with a fresh character, and integrate them as soon as practicable. I do it because I want what happens to feel like it matters.
In any case, it's important to remember that the death of a PC in D&D is not the same thing as death in real life - although it's annoying and a bit of a bummer, D&D is played by the players and not the PCs, and the player remains in the game. When his PC dies, he just takes on a different form. In this sense, D&D PCs are really something akin to a Moorcockian Eternal Champion - just another iteration of the person for whom they stand in as an avatar. Pandion might have died, but that doesn't affect his player's continued participation.
This is why I also don't think it matters very much that no matter what kind of PC they come up with (fighter, thief, magic-user, dwarf, elf, etc.) the vast majority of players kind of end up just being a version of themselves during play - same voice, same personality, same priorities. I would be troubled by that if I thought that role-playing should be about exploring the character of the PCs, but as I think it's more to do with exploring a world, it's fine by me that the next PC Pandion's former player takes on will probably be pretty similar ultimately, aside perhaps for some new eccentricity or other, even if it turns out to be a female halfling. (The same goes for all the other players, by the way, and undoubtedly me too if I'm ever no longer the DM.) The important thing is retaining the existence of the player in the ongoing campaign, and what he brings to the table, than having any particular PC or other involved.