As news of David Bowie’s death broke on January 10, amongst the sadness, grief, and testaments to his massive cultural impact, was discussion of the way in which Bowie foreshadowed his death in his most recent studio album, Blackstar (released only days prior), and in the video for the single ‘Lazarus.’
The New York Post called the final album an “eerie parting gift to fans.”
Newsweek stated that the video for ‘Lazarus,’ which features a frail and tormented Bowie in a beautifully shot (yet certainly disturbing) hospital setting, “has taken on eerie overtones in the immediate aftermath of his death.”
Another tweeted “David Bowie’s Last video he made before he passed is creepy. He should have left that out.”
While not everyone felt this way, it struck me that, overwhelmingly, the general consensus was that Bowie’s way of exiting the world was unsettling, discomforting, and disturbing. Many seemed troubled by the fact that they didn’t know he was ill, but equally disturbed by the fact that he so intimately addressed death’s inevitability (and proximity) in his final musical and video compositions, almost as if to suggest that he shouldn’t have kept his illness private, or that his choice to address his impending death through his art put a burden on the public that we were not prepared to bear.
Bowie’s death, which was in some ways incredibly private and other ways brazenly public, was done on his own terms. He was able to die with dignity, to control his own narrative, to express himself in a way that he wished, and to exit gracefully. While none of us can ever be David Bowie, hopefully, we can all learn from his example.
There are gazillions of books on how to bring a child into the world. Gazillions of them. Yet, not so many on how to die, even though the market for such books is literally 100% of the human population.
There are many reasons why such books are scarce. Mostly, we don’t like to be reminded about our mortality, despite its inevitability. We know that at the end of life, as our health declines, we start to lose control. We often lose control of the decisions made about our own treatment, our estate, and other affairs. We increasingly lose control of our freedom. And as our life winds down, we often lose control of our own functions. There’s nothing about any of this that elicits a feeling of joy, that’s for sure. Yet, it’s universal — and we, as a society, could do worse than to acknowledge, accept, and talk more openly about it. Death doesn’t have to be the big scary bogeyman in the closet. There are books, organizations, and other resources to help us navigate our final days.
While we can’t all fashion our deaths into a captivating performance, or leave behind a work of art that will live forever, we can come to terms with our own inevitable expiration, and most of us — if we so choose (and plan accordingly) — can die with dignity and grace, much in the way that Bowie did. If we are fortunate, we can find beauty and peace while we are preparing for our own deaths. With the right care and support, we can be awake and alive during our final days. Like Bowie, we can depart in a manner that befits us.
There have been many wonderful examples of people — famous and not — who have died beautifully. Such graceful exits can serve as a salve for our anxieties, and help us to speak more openly about death and dying. They serve as a reminder that death is that other thing way over there, on the far end of being born.
Bowie showed us many things in his life. He challenged our notions of gender and sexuality. He showed us that it’s okay — and cool — to be weird. He showed us that we can reinvent ourselves over and over again. He showed us that we aren’t bound by how others perceive us.
And in the very end, he showed us how to die.