We lost so many beloved cultural figures in 2016 that the year might go down in history as the Year of Celebrity Death.
The losses hit my generation hard. The same year I turned 40 I said goodbye to heroes whose immortality I’d taken for granted. People like Prince and David Bowie, in particular, seemed too otherworldly for something as mundane as death. But it turns out no human being is too cool to die.
When we lost Gene Wilder—Willy Wonka—I posted on Facebook that I was comforted to think of him reunited with his wife, Gilda Radner, on the other side. I was quickly shamed by those who reminded me that Wilder had been married three times and that he’d left behind a living, breathing, grieving widow.
But is it really wrong to rejoice at the idea of being reunited with earthly loves in heaven? Especially when that earthly union brought so much joy? In my heaven, I pouted, I better see Gene and Gilda together again.
A ridiculous thought experiment? Probably. But these were the kinds of questions weighing heavy on my heart in 2016 as I said goodbye. And said goodbye again.
Bowie’s death was the first, in January, and the strangest, because though he’d kept his terminal cancer diagnosis a secret, it’s clear in hindsight that he orchestrated the last year of his life as his final artistic statement—his parting gift to us all. He entered a period of frenetic creativity, writing and producing an off-Broadway play, Lazarus, and his final album, Black Star. The video for the song “Lazarus” features a bedridden, blindfolded Bowie struggling with some unseen force—already morbid enough—but it takes on an even more chilling cast when we know that Bowie was really and truly dying and well aware of it.
As I watched the video for “Lazarus,” a memory bubbled up from childhood of a Catholic prayer for a “good death” or “happy death.” As someone who has seen more than her fair share of death, I can report that the feelings I’ve experienced at the deathbed are neither good nor happy. What could this possibly mean—to make a happy death?