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Profound and prescient reflections on mortality from the greats

What do we say to death?

Profound and prescient reflections on mortality from the greats
24 November 2016

How will you react when staring your own mortality in the face? It’s a question surely all men have pondered, be it fleetingly or during long, dark nights of the soul. 

And, when it comes to locking eyes with death, we can seek wisdom from some of  the great men of literature, art and music who shared their own profound and insightful reflections on mortality when they realised they were not long for this world. From Leonard Cohen to David Bowie, we took at some of most fascinating quotes on mortality from the great. 

Christopher Hitchens 

“In one way, I suppose, I have been "in denial" for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.” 

The iconic writer and journalist, staunch atheist and namesake of the Hitch Slap openly ‘resisted’ (his preference to the word ‘battle’) cancer, and was refreshingly honest about his feelings on looking at death. He joked among peers, cancelling an appearance at the American Atheist convention saying "Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death."

He gave deeply moving interviews (like this one with Paxman. Warning: you’ll probably cry), and wrote until the day he died, posthumously publishing Mortalitywhere he shares his experience of cancer and confronting death. If you were to take a page from Hitchens’ book, it would be to face death with dignity and absolute, unwavering commitment to your beliefs.


Leonard Cohen

“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels.”

Our most recent global loss, the Canadian singer, writer, poet and painter took a practical approach to facing death. In a 2015 interview with The New Yorker, Cohen said the most cathartic thing you can do is to organise yourself. In his work though, he tackled death in varying ways, see his dark but poignant poem Almost Like The Blues and touched other great men with his take on life – while inducting Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lou Reed said “we are so lucky to be alive at the same time as Leonard Cohen.” In a letter to his old flame Marianne, (his muse for So Long Marianne) Leonard predicted that he would follow behind her in death quite soon, and at 81 seemed at peace with it. If your heart doesn’t break a little when you read it, seek medical attention immediately because it’s stopped working.

Nelson Mandela

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace” 

It’s fair to say that Nelson Mandela faced more dire times than any man should have to. And he handled them with otherworldly positivity and optimism. He identified as a fundamental optimist, saying “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” His lessons can be learned both through life and the end of it. And so in the face of respiratory illness at 95, which ultimately led to his death, he faced it with acceptance. If anyone’s earned the right to rest in peace, Mandela is up there.

Mark Twain

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” 

Mark Twain may be best known as a literature great, but he was also a man with a pretty dry sense of humour. He essentially predicted his own death, stating: I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together'. And so he faced death with high expectations that were met - he died the day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.  

Clive James

“If you hang out at a hospital long enough you’ll see things that will remind that you had a lucky life. If you can see at all, you’ve had a lucky life. I don’t complain; I’m lucky. I’m getting near what my friend calls the ‘departure lounge’, but I’ve got a version of it that doesn’t hurt, so I may as well enjoy myself while I can.”

Two years after the hard-living broadcaster told the world that ‘B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia had “beaten him”, he remains still with us, kept alive by an experimental drug called Ibrutinib (“I am faced with the prospect that the thing keeping me alive is trying to kill me”). And while his waggish humour is still very much intact – “My obituaries were so fabulous”, he has since joked - if you want the greatest insight of a man facing the abyss of his own morality, James’ 2014 poem for The New Yorker, Japanese Maple, is an essential read.

Steve Jobs

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

This generation’s Godfather of technology had definitely left an impression on the world when he left it, but he faced his departure brought on by cancer with a noble approach. “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me,” he once said. The Mac messiah’s last words were said to be “oh wow”.

Tupac Shakur

“I don't have no fear of death. My only fear is coming back reincarnated.”

Being a huge player in the Eighties and Nineties hip-hop game, it’s hardly a surprise the legendary rapper didn’t fear death, given how often it occurred. In the aftermath of the drive-by shooting which ended his life, Tupac had two words when faced with death. According to the first officer on the scene, Tupac said “f**k you” and refused to talk to any officers again. Defiant until the end, let’s hope he didn’t see that hologram or those posthumous albums that keep popping up.

Winston Churchill


“I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

Churchill served and led through both World Wars and suffered 10 strokes before he died. So it’s quite safe to say he faced possible death with great resistance. His 90 years in this world were pretty full on, to say the least, with a military career, two non-consecutive terms as Prime Minister and a Nobel Prize for Literature under his belt. Britain mourned for over a week when he died. He was sent of with the largest state funeral in world history up to that time, with representatives from 112 nations in attendance plus the Queen, but whatever met him on the other end was sure to have their hands full – his last words were “Oh, I am so bored with it all,” despite the life he led.

Roger Ebert

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.”

One of the world’s most prolific film critics lived with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands for 11 years – the disease cost him his lower jaw and his ability to eat and speak normally. But it couldn’t take away his pen and throughout his battle he faced the process with gratitude – “What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.” He left us with the poignant statement that he was taking a leave of presence two days before his death. 

David Bowie

“I don’t have a problem with ageing - in fact, I embrace that aspect of it. And am able to and obviously am going to be able to quite easily … it doesn’t faze me at all. It’s the death part that’s really a is a finite thing.”

The loss of Bowie at the beginning of this year set off something in the cosmos that led to 2016 being completely shit. Bowie decided to make music with the time he had and leave the world with a little bit more of himself before he made an unexpected departure. He carried on so normally, that even some of his closest friends didn’t realise he was about to leave. Talking to the BBC, longtime friend Brian Eno shared his last correspondence with Bowie before he died, “I received an email from him seven days ago...It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, Brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’. I realise now he was saying goodbye.” Maybe he saw everything else coming before we did, but it’s an interesting exercise to think how you would fill your time if you knew it was limited.


“I learned from Jehovah's Witnesses that a fatalistic view is counterproductive."

Another legend who bit the dust, Prince took on life and death with a unique outlook. In an interview with Mel B (you can watch it here, it’s as Nineties as you can get) at his Paisley Park home, he shared his take on death while also discussing a view on birthdays that even Scary Spice struggled to get her head around; “We came here not knowing we were going to die, somebody told us that. If we never knew we were going to die, we wouldn’t celebrate birthdays.” We like to think there is an epic party happening somewhere with Prince involved.

Muhammad Ali

“Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you're going to be right.”

Ali may have been the greatest boxer ever, but he was also a pretty great hype man for himself and everyone around him. Of his many verbal gems, this quote about life and death highlights the way he lived and his legacy - as one of the greatest of all time. It’s a good way to live, even if you’re not facing death. Ali had been suffering from a number of illness’ for a long time before he eventually died from septic shock and had pre-planned his own funeral in the years prior to his actual death. He faced death as he lived, prepared and refusing to leave without a fight.