What Celebrities Can Teach Us About Death

Having spent a lifetime in the public eye, some celebrities are not shying away from it in death

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Matt Sayles / File / AP

Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013.

Only a day before Roger Ebert’s death, the film critic, who had thyroid cancer since 2002, announced publicly that he was “taking a leave of presence.” This was clever, but most of us were unprepared for the news.

Contrast this with Valerie Harper’s proactively transparent approach. “I don’t think of dying. I think of being here now,” Harper said in a recent People interview. Harper, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, has been refreshingly open about her illness. “I feel so much better not hiding,” she said in an interview on NBC. Although she excused celebrities who want to stay private, she felt really good being open, saying, “If you die, you are not a failure. You’re just somebody who had cancer.”

It used to be that Hollywood stars seem to last forever until, suddenly, they disappear. That’s what Gary Cooper did in the 1960s. He had cancer for almost a year, but his adoring fans only realized something was wrong when Jimmy Stewart picked up his Oscar for him that spring in tears.

(MORE: Roger Ebert: Farewell to a Film Legend and a Friend)

It’s understandable that people who build their reputations on images have a hard time being straight with us about their final days. But we can learn a lot more from celebrities who buck the trend and, having spent a lifetime in the public eye, do not shy away from it in death. Take Art Buchwald. When he suffered a stroke and subsequent amputation, he told Diane Rehm on the radio from his hospice bed that it was time to go. He discussed his living will on CNN. Then he went into hospice living long enough to write another book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. When he did finally die in January 2007, his son posted a video of him the following day, saying: “Hi. I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”

Buchwald did us a public service by helping us talk about what no one wants to talk about: we will all die, eventually, and to the extent that much of it is not under our control, how do we want to go? When celebrities are willing to go public with death, to come out of the casket so to speak, it helps give us guidance in how we might make our own choices. The English writer Terry Pratchett made a documentary in 2011 about assisted suicide as a personal quest in Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. When the stately New York Times journalist Dudley Clendinen knew that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease and the clock was ticking, he used many of those last hours to lecture and write about death. He called his disease “Lou” for short, as if it were an old friend. In his last radio broadcast he said in near tears, “Everyone has to die but not many of us are asked to talk about it.”

(MORE: Why Roger Ebert’s Thumb Mattered)

Christopher Hitchens described the battle he waged with cancer as being a soldier on the wrong side. He loved the image of struggle, he wrote in Mortality, but not the feeling of being “swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.” It may have been painful to hear his depiction, but we can all appreciate his elegance and his honesty. And in moments of clarity, we recognize that when we can say — without smirking, sputtering or calling upon old family superstitions — “I am going to die,” we begin a more honest journey towards death.

Going public with death does all of us in the bleachers a big favor by helping us die better. The days of the silent and suffering cowboy died with John Wayne. Today, a celebrity’s greatest act may be his or her final one.