'Look up here, I'm in heaven."
In the music video for Lazarus, David Bowie sings this line in a hospital bed, bandages over his face, as an unseen force pulls him toward the sky. He was dead three days after it went online in January.
Nothing did more to set the tone for art in 2016 than Bowie's theatricalization of his own end – in videos loaded with death imagery, a stage musical (also under the mortality-defying name Lazarus) and the album Blackstar (perhaps a reference to a cancerous lesion), all of which came out in his final month.
After Ziggy Stardust came many others who turned their own demise or impending deaths into performance art – from The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie, who howled his way across the country while deteriorating from brain cancer, to Winnipeg's Glamdrew, who had strangers tattoo secrets on his body at a "living funeral" two days before he died, to Leonard Cohen, who entertained us right to the end with the exact right words: "You want it darker."
The trend on social media was to curse the year for the icons it took away, but we should admit that we were also fascinated by the way artists grappled with the subject of death. Over the past 12 months, the performance of death and dying was riveting, moving, enlightening. In many ways, we enjoyed it.
Tony Visconti, a producer on Blackstar, described Bowie's final output as a "parting gift" from the star, who had kept the liver cancer that killed him a secret from his fans. "His death was no different than his life – a work of Art," Visconti wrote on Facebook.
You could say the same of Downie, whose final show with The Tragically Hip at the Rogers K-Rok Centre in Kingston was watched or listened to by 11.7 million of us on CBC. Using Teleprompters to help him with lyrics he had sung for decades, the singer let his fans witness how his body was falling apart, all the while theatricalizing what was happening. I will never forget his final performance of Grace, Too, which ended with him alternating between silent crying and open-mouthed screams, until he literally dropped the microphone and took a solemn bow.
In a different way, Cohen eased fans toward his grave over many months – writing to his dying friend Marianne Ihlen that he was ready to die , then saying the same thing in a New Yorker profile, before finally singing it to all of us on the opening track of his final and equal parts funny and funereal album, You Want It Darker, released just 17 days before his death. "Hineni, hineni," he chants, the Hebrew word for "Here I am," backed by a cantor from the synagogue he went to as a boy in Montreal. "I'm ready, my Lord."
In a year in which the Canadian government passed legislation to make medically assisted dying legal, artists who knew or had intuited that they were close to death showed us how to fully stage an exit. With their art, they opened a much-needed, complex conversation about dying – one that goes beyond medical, political or legal matters.
This was most clear in the profoundly moving final performances of Andrew Henderson, who went by the stage name Glamdrew. In October, the Ace Art gallery in Winnipeg was packed for two shows called Taking it to the Grave. The 28-year-old artist, who had been diagnosed with terminal lymphoblastic lymphoma, lay on a white chaise lounge in what was designed to look like a giant champagne bottle, with a nail bar and loads of glitter. Strangers whispered secrets into Glamdrew's ear, and the genderqueer artist then drew symbols representing the "confessions" on a pad, which were promptly inked onto his dying body. Henderson was rushed to a hospital in Selkirk, Man., two days later and died overnight.
The goal of the living funeral, said Eroca Nicols, a choreographer who created the show/ritual with Henderson and anointed her friend with champagne during the performance, was in part to "queer" funerary practices and propose an alternative. But it was also meant to open up a conversation about the unavoidable that so many of us avoid. "Death is the only thing, literally, the only thing that we can guarantee," she said, so why do we not get ready for the inevitable?
It wasn't billed as a living funeral, but The Tragically Hip's sold-out celebration performed a similar function in rock arenas across the country, allowing Downie's fans a chance to say goodbye – and allowing him to say what he really wanted to say.
In Downie's last stand with the Hip, the fading artist's power returned and was boosted by everyone's awareness of what was happening to him. Admirably, he turned the spotlight on another conversation that we have often avoided: reconciliation with Canada's indigenous people. "What you can't escape you've got to embrace," Downie wrote on Secret Path, his solo album/graphic novel about a boy who ran away from his residential school – and it seems Downie has followed that advice.
This was something other artists who left us unexpectedly this year, such as Prince, did not get the chance to do. But if more artists are aware of their mortality and embracing it through their art, it may be because death, particularly for recording artists, has been complicated by the digital era.
It was astonishing when Natalie Cole performed Unforgettable with her late father, Nat King Cole, on the Grammys in 1992 – even blowing him a kiss on screen.
But now we live in an age in which a Tupac Shakur hologram might get up and rap at Coachella; in which Cirque du Soleil can take you on tour years after your death – as it did with the wildly profitable Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. For artists, it's more important than ever to choose how your death is performed.
Is the performance of dying new, or does it just seem so? Bruce Barton, the director of the School of Creative Performing Arts at the University of Calgary, says a great deal of performance art has always flirted with death – albeit with death as a risk or threat rather than an eventuality. And the majority of theatrical performances – from Oedipus to Hamlet to 'night, Mother – ask audiences to be entertained by witnessing the death of fictional characters. The current trend, he says, seems to be a natural extension of centuries of artistic practice.
"The performance of one's own death is, in a sense, the ultimate event horizon, representation's true point of no return," Barton wrote in an e-mail. "In an era obsessed with the banal and relentless fictionalization of reality, the subtle spectacle of individual extinction is perhaps the ultimate triumph – and undoing – of theatricality. We are, in the end, all analog."