10 Quotes About Death & Dying to Live By

To mark the beginning of Dying Matters Week and our own Psychology of Loss Week, we have collected together ten of the most interesting and inspiring quotes about death and dying. These quotes will encourage you think differently about death, and help you approach life with a more positive attitude.

"While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die."

- Leonardo da Vinci

Self portrait in Red Chalk, painted in 1512 when the artist was 50.

The first quote in our list comes from the original Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Italian inventor's death. The quote highlights the inevitability of death; that it is the natural and logical end to a person's life. The older we get, the closer to death we become.

The idea of nothingness is a depressing, disturbing and frightening thought. As the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp.” But, we all have to face up to the fact that one day we will die. Leonardo seems to be suggesting that we should be learning how to die a good death. We can only do this if we lead a rich and satisfying life.

His advice can help challenge our perspective on death. Contemplating our own demise can help us be ready to die when our time is up. We may even welcome death as the final gift of life.

Receiving a terminal diagnosis often acts as a catalyst to make a person focus on what matters most in life. It helps them value the people and places around them. It encourages them to be present and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. It is only through the act of dying that the person learns to live. So, if we're all dying from the very day that we're born, why don't more of us take this approach to life? The fact that we're all going to die is a universal truth, one that we ignore at our own peril.

Leonardo da Vinci was a very accomplished man. He was an anatomist, architect, botanist, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, philosopher, scientist, sculptor and writer. In other words, he was one of the world's greatest polymaths. A true interdisciplinary academic. (Although by all accounts he wasn't very good at finishing all the projects he started).

Clos Lucé in Amboise, France. This is where Leonardo died in 1519.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Leonardo died on the 2nd May, 1519 in Amboise, France. He died from a suspected stroke. Leonardo was 67 years old, and he had certainly lead a rich and satisfying life. Even so, on his deathbed he lamented discontent with his perfectionist ways. He said that, "he had offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done." Leonardo then sent for a priest to make his confession and receive the Holy Sacrament.

In accordance with his will, sixty beggars carrying tapers followed his casket. Leonardo was buried in the Collegiate Church of Saint Florentin in Château d'Amboise in France. During the French Revolution, much of the château was damaged. This led lead to the demolition of the church in 1802. Some of the graves were destroyed in the process and his remains were lost.

While excavating the site in 1863, a skeleton thought to belong to da Vinci was discovered. DNA testing has yet to prove that these are his remains.

Read more about Leonardo da Vinci in this fantastic article written by Claudia Kalb. The article was first published in the May 2019 edition of National Geographic.

"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death."

- Leonardo da Vinci

The second quote in our list also comes from Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, the first quote seems to make a lot more sense when you pair it with this one.

The philosophy expressed here is simple: do more with your day and you'll sleep better at night. Do more with your life, and you'll have fewer regrets when you die.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

- William Shakespeare

Quote number three comes from The Bard, William Shakespeare. More specifically, these famous lines are spoken by Julius Caesar in the play that bears his name.

After the Soothsayer has warned him of his death, he muses, "What can be avoided. Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?" In other words, if the gods have decided that he is going to die, then how can he avoid his fate? He then continues to speak the now-famous lines to his wife, Calpurnia.

The quote tells us that Cesar—and through him Shakespeare—finds it strange that so many men fear death, when death is inevitable in every man's life. He has been a strong and brave leader, and has not wasted his life on anticipating tragedy.

Portrait of Shakespeare by John Taylor. Painted in 1610. Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

"The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."

- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Continuing with the Roman theme, quote number four was penned by the statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was a talented lawyer, and a leading politician in the era of Caesar (he was, in fact, an outspoken opponent of the dictator).

Although he considered himself a politician first and foremost, he introduced the Romans to the Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary. He was a skilful translator and important thought leader who had a strong influence on the Latin language.

This quote reminds us that the dead live on in our memories. We can keep our lost loved ones alive by sharing stories about them with other people.

Bust of Cicero. Photo Credit: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.

Read more about the life and death of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

"Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."

- Tecumseh

Tecumseh was a brilliant Shawnee Indian chief, warrior and political leader. He became the leader of a large, multi-tribal confederacy in the early 19th century. Tecumseh remains a well-respected political leader, orator and humanitarian.

Tecumseh and his followers joined forces with the British to resist the encroachment of settlers on Indian-controlled territory. As a warrior, he was well known for his personal bravery, and was both feared and admired by the Americans. This bravery is reflected in his attitude towards death.

The frieze of American History on the Capitol Rotunda. The panoramic scene depicts the death of Tecumseh (see bottom right-hand corner).

Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Tecumseh was fatally shot by Colonel Johnson at the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada during the War of 1812. After his death, the momentum and power of the Indian confederacy was broken and never recovered. Since this time, Tecumseh has become an important American folk hero.

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death."

- Robert Fulghum

The sixth quote in our list comes from best-selling author Robert Fulghum. This simple piece of wisdom is taken from his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for almost two years. The essays featured in the book are subtitled "Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things."

In the book, Robert engages with musings on life, death, love, pain, joy and sorrow. The little seed in the Styrofoam cup offers a reminder about our own mortality and the delicate nature of life.

"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

- Norman Cousins

Norman Cousins. Photo Credit: NASA.

Our seventh quote comes from Norman Cousins, an American political journalist, author, professor and strong advocate of world peace. This quote reminds us to live the life that we want to lead, and not to let our dreams die inside of us.

Norman wrote an usual book in 1979 called The Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. In it, he describes how he used positive human emotions to fight crippling arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. His doctor told him he had a one in five-hundred chance of a full recovery. A combination of large, intravenous doses of Vitamin C, and self-induced bouts of laughter apparently helped him live to see his 75th birthday. He died of heart failure years after he was given his grave prognosis.

Did laughter help him cheat death? This seems unlikely, but there is some evidence that laughter therapy does have pain suppressing abilities as suggested by Cousins in his 1979 book.

"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."

- Steve Jobs

This practical piece of advice comes from the mind of Steve Jobs, pioneer of the microcomputer revolution, businessman extraordinaire, and founder of Apple Inc and Pixar.

He died of pancreatic cancer at the relatively young age of 56. Jobs continued to work for Apple until the day before his death on the 5th of October 2011.

This quote is likely inspired by his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism (something that also influenced the design aesthetic of Apple products like the iPhone and MacBook). It reminds us to seize opportunities when they appear before us, and not to put off the important decisions in our lives.

"The darkness of death is like the evening twilight; it makes all objects appear more lovely to the dying."

- Jean Paul

Quote number nine is from Jean Paul. He was a German Romantic writer best known for his humorous stories. His outlook on life was profoundly altered after he had a vision of his own death. This personal crisis inspired him to write a number of excellent books in quick succession. This included the book Hesperus, which made him famous.

In September 1821, Jean Paul lost his only son. By all accounts, he never quite recovered from the shock. He lost his sight in 1824, and died in Bayreuth on the 14th November, 1825.

His quote reminds us all that there is a strange beauty in death.

"IF PEOPLE KNEW WHEN THEY WERE GOING TO DIE, I THINK THEY PROBABLY WOULDN'T LIVE AT ALL."

- Terry Prachett

And now we arrive at quote number ten. The final word in this article is given, quite appropriately, to Death himself. Or at least the character of Death as he was imagined by Sir Terry Pratchett in his phenomenal Discworld series of novels.

Death is a recurring theme in the written work of Pratchett. This particularly good quote is taken from his brilliant book Reaper Man (the eleventh Discworld novel). In it, Death is trying to come to terms with the mortality of man. This book continues the story started in Mort (the fourth Discworld novel) in which we see Death struggling with the monotony of his work, and how to deal with the loneliness that come with it.

The book is clearly influenced by Terry's Humanist beliefs and provides proof that, as well as being the best-selling author of the 1990s, he was also a great philosopher.

Do you have a favourite quote about death or dying? Share it with us below.