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Death Transformed a Year, and What May Lie Ahead

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Death has rarely so shaped a year as it did in 2020. It swept the world riding the back of the coronavirus. It galvanized a Black Lives Matter movement across the United States and abroad, sending people of all colors into the streets to demand social justice. It altered the ideological makeup of the United States Supreme Court so decisively that the consequences of that shift will assuredly be felt for decades.

Almost one year in, the pandemic races on like the unstoppable wildfires that blackened the West, and it’s far from done with us, we know, even as vaccines have arrived to defeat it.

Some segments of the population suffered more than others — the nursing home elderly; the poor, particularly in Black and brown communities — but the virus felled people from all walks of life, some of them famous: the former presidential candidate and pizza chain magnate Herman Cain, the playwright and explorer of gay life Terrence McNally, the former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

George Floyd’s death, by contrast, was seen as symptomatic of a societal sickness. There were other Black Americans killed by police officers in 2020 — Rayshard Brooks Jr., Mike Ramos and Breonna Taylor among them — and their names became rallying cries in their own right. But more than any other, Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police in May became a tipping point in the long struggle for racial equality, an eight-minute, 46-second videotaped horror that set off waves of revulsion and outrage that extended well beyond our shores with a kind of centrifugal force.

ImageRuth Bader Ginsburg during her Senate confirmation hearings in 1993. She was replaced by her jurisprudential polar opposite.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her Senate confirmation hearings in 1993. She was replaced by her jurisprudential polar opposite. Credit…Steve Crowley/The New York Times

Another death in 2020 with historical implications was that of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Coming in September in the heat of a presidential election campaign, it mobilized Republicans to fill her seat as quickly as possible with her jurisprudential polar opposite, a rock-solid conservative. And having control of the Senate, they succeeded, notwithstanding the cries of hypocrisy by Democrats, whose own election-year Supreme Court nominee had been denied a hearing four years earlier. In an outcome Justice Ginsburg would have lamented, her death, too, became a pivot point, shifting the weight of the court, with its vast potential to affect American lives, sharply to the right.

Justice Ginsburg’s death, for all the sorrow it brought, did not come as a complete shock. She had struggled with cancer and other maladies well into old age, remarkably overcoming them time and again. But Kobe Bryant’s death did shock, coming as it did literally out of the blue on a Sunday morning in late January — a charismatic former basketball superstar perishing alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in the hills north of Los Angeles.

A global celebrity and still a man of bright promise at only 41, Mr. Bryant was undoubtedly on his way to transcending the sport that had brought him fame, through ventures in business and entertainment and who knows what else. And his death indeed resonated beyond the sports world; news of it was a stunner on every continent.

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The death of the former N.B.A. superstar Kobe Bryant, at 41, was a stunner worldwide. Credit…Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But he was a sports figure first and foremost, and dying so soon in 2020, he became the first in a parade of sports idols who passed from the scene this year. Within a span of six weeks Major League Baseball lost what seemed to be an entire wing of its Hall of Fame: Tom Seaver (another Covid casualty), Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan. The Green Bay Packers lost four stalwarts from the team’s glory years under coach Vince Lombardi: Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Herb Adderley and Paul Hornung, Hall of Famers all. Gale Sayers, one of the N.F.L.’s greatest running backs, left Chicago bereft. And Mickey Wright, who some called the greatest player ever in women’s golf, died at 85.

A fellow coach who rivaled and maybe surpassed Lombardi for greatness, Don Shula, died in May still holding the N.F.L. record for total victories, 347. And early this month the gold-medal Olympian and good-will ambassador Rafer Johnson was gone, his death coming just a few weeks after that of the dazzling but troubled Diego Maradona, by all measures one of the two greatest players in soccer history, the other being his friend Pele of Brazil.

The competitive sport of politics suffered the loss of John Lewis, who, bloodied but unbowed on a bridge in Selma in 1965, took the fight for civil rights to Congress and never let up.

Mr. Lewis liked to talk about making “good trouble,” as he did — mixing it up with the powers that be in the name of a just cause. He was not alone in that. He was accompanied in death this year by two of his brothers in arms — arms locked elbow to elbow — in the civil rights struggle. In the case of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, death came on the very same day it arrived for Mr. Lewis, July 17. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery preceded them in March.

Across the ocean was Betty Williams, who had taken to the streets and the halls of power to stop the violence in Northern Ireland (Troubles that no one would call good), earning a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. Thich Quang Do, the patriarch of a banned Buddhist church in Vietnam, suffered prison, house arrest and internal exile for decades rather than submit to the Communist authorities.

In the U.S., the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States, sought to push open the doors to the church hierarchy even wider, to let in more women as well as Black people (like her) and gay people. Debra White Plume spent a lifetime fighting the power — be it government, corporate or police — pressing for the rights of Native Americans. And the activist, journalist and podcaster Monica Roberts told the stories of transgender people at a time, 14 years ago, when almost no one in mainstream society wanted to hear them.

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Bishop Barbara C. Harris in 1989. She was the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States.Credit…Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Quieter but altogether significant figures of government also left the stage: David N. Dinkins, the courtly career politician who broke a race barrier when he was elected mayor of New York, a belated recognition that his city’s complexion had long been multihued; Paul O’Neill, the former Alcoa C.E.O. who became George W. Bush’s treasury secretary, only to be cashiered within two years after showing, it was said, too independent a mind about the economy and insufficient loyalty to the president; and Brent Scowcroft, the unassuming expert on international affairs whose privately imparted views were often mouthed, and turned into foreign policy, by the Republican presidents he advised.

No doubt Mr. Scowcroft had plenty to say about Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian autocrat whose 30 years of cold, harsh rule had been broken in the Arab Spring. Or Daniel arap Moi, whose own strongman reign of 24 years in Kenya proved almost as durable as Mr. Mubarak’s. Or, as their opposite number, Lee Teng-hui, who transformed Taiwan from a grim island of authoritarianism into an oasis of democracy in the looming presence of an always threatening China across the water.

Each of those men could be said to have represented an era, but so did a host of others in less dominant ways. Watergate mavens immediately remembered the name of Egil Krogh, a Nixon aide who greenlighted a fateful break-in at a spot now enshrined in Watergate lore as “the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.” Linda Tripp recalled the scandal of the ’90s — the secret recordings of phone calls, the stained dress, the painful public declarations about sex (or about not having sex) that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

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The NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in 1966. It took a 2016 movie to bring her the widespread credit that she had never received.Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

The ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith was the last of the Kennedy siblings to pass on. Annie Glenn and Rene Carpenter, the wives of astronauts (but more than that), evoked NASA’s glory years, the 1960s. So did Chuck Yeager, the sound-barrier-breaking test pilot and astronauts’ guru whom Tom Wolfe called “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” And so did the space agency mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was belatedly celebrated in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” after being left in the shadows when space capsules orbited the Earth.

Their deaths did not necessarily signal the end of one era or another; many of the alumni of those times are still here. But Kirk Douglas, dead at 103, and Olivia de Havilland, at 104, were certainly among the very last vestiges of that proverbial golden Hollywood era that spanned the 20th century’s middle decades.

It gave way, we remember, to the filmic disruptions of the ’60s, in one case to the over-the-top Cold War likes of Bond, James Bond, as originally embodied by the dashing, suave and seemingly perpetually amused Sean Connery. His eventual bowing out of the franchise didn’t bring down the curtain on it, of course. Bond lives on. But not that Bond. That Bond died in his sleep in the Bahamas (a lush setting for “Thunderball”) on Oct. 31.

Mr. Connery joined a long list of actors, ranging across the eras, whose embedded stars in a Hollywood sidewalk now constitute memorials: Rhonda Fleming, Ian Holm, Max von Sydow, Brian Dennehy, the dancer-actor Marge Champion. More familiar to Bollywood and the art-house audiences of Satyajit Ray, Soumitra Chatterjee (yet another Covid victim) died with an astonishing 350 movies under his belt.

Chadwick Boseman didn’t leave that long a trail, but he had built a substantial body work before his life was cut short at 43 — another blow that only his intimates saw coming. He had worked right up until the end, presumably through the pain of cancer, and showed us what the future might have held when he offered, seemingly from beyond the grave, a couple of blazing last performances (in “Da 5 Bloods” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), delivered to our living room bunkers in this pandemic year by Netflix.

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Chadwick Boseman died at 43 but let the world see the potential that was lost when two last blazing performances were shown posthumously on Netflix.Credit…Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times

Then again, television has always preserved what’s dead and gone. Old TV shows and old movies are continually resuscitated, and never more so than now, what with all those streaming services and their bottomless archives. So it is that screen stars, too, are assured of an electronic afterlife. Farewell, Jerry Stiller, Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Diana Rigg, Alex Trebek and Honor Blackman (who nicely judo-flipped Mr. Connery’s Bond), we’ll see you again.

Even the transitory art of theater has found means to freeze performances in time, or at least bits of them, on film and videotape, letting us watch a master like the multiple Tony winner Zoe Caldwell at work in “Master Class,” or revisit unsparing scenes from “The Normal Heart,” the autobiographical play by Larry Kramer that charted and channeled his fervent AIDS activism.

But all art, particularly if we treasure it, outlives its maker — with the possible exception of Christo, who, with his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, merged the monumental with the ephemeral, draping or wrapping with fabric a bridge across the Seine, the Reichstag, a mountain pass, Central Park — then standing back and letting us look with awe before tearing it all down.

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Using vast swaths of fabric, Christo merged the monumental with the ephemeral. He died in May at 84. Credit…Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

Luchita Hurtado‘s brilliant, visionary canvases, on the other hand, with their strokes of Surrealism and Mexican muralism, will long be admired in real time, even if relatively few people saw them while she lived, her work having virtually been hidden away until she was in her 90s. And it’s safe to say that art lovers well into future will be considering the massive yet never ponderous abstract sculpture of Beverly Pepper and the starkly lush canvases of Susan Rothenberg, who reimagined figurative painting at a time when the abstract, the minimal and the conceptual ruled the art world.

Little Richard is gone, but not his indelible primal rock ‘n’ roll. Bill Withers, Betty Wright, Kenny Rogers, Helen Reddy, Trini Lopez, John Prine and Charley Pride (the last two still more casualties of Covid) will continue to sing to us, whether the medium of choice is digital or analog. Vera Lynn will, too, if only as nuclear bombs explode in the closing minutes of “Dr. Strangelove.” We’ll continue to marvel at Eddie Van Halen‘s lightning-in-a-bottle guitar playing, McCoy Tyner‘s muscular, melodic jazz piano, the percussionist Ray Mantilla‘s inventive versatility, Julian Bream‘s sublimely updated classical guitar and the soprano Mirella Freni‘s rapturous embrace of Italian opera.

John le Carre left us a pile of spy novels that rose to literature. Some say Roger Kahn‘s sports books and Jan Morris‘s travel writing did the same. A journalist’s work, by its nature, rarely has a long shelf life, but Gail Sheehy‘s “Passages” has already upended that truism and will no doubt continue to as long as there are adults walking that tortuous path called life.

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Jan Morris was acclaimed for her travel writing. She was 94 when she died in November.Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Business empires, for all their riches and reach, may not endure as long as a book of poetry. Still, one doesn’t see Sumner Redstone‘s media colossus or Stanley Ho‘s casino kingdom on the island of Macau crumbling any time soon. Nor will Pierre Cardin‘s sprawling fashion and merchandising juggernaut be immediately closing up shop now that the proprietor is dead.

Yet even those tycoons would have agreed with the T-shirt-friendly line by the English fantasy writer Alan Moore: “There is no certainty, only opportunity.”

For certainty we turn to scientists, even if they can’t always provide it. We turned to Margaret Burbidge to answer questions about the stars; to Freeman Dyson to elucidate something even smaller than an atom; to the neuropathologist Mary Fowkes to help us understand the coronavirus plague through the autopsies she performed; and to Takuo Aoyagi to give us something that will tell us when our health is in danger. He did so by inventing the modern pulse oximeter, which clips on a finger and shows the level of oxygen in the blood. It became a critical tool in the fight against the coronavirus, in the fight for survival.

And if 2020 taught us anything, it was about the universal will to survive in the constant face of one irrefutable certainty: our impermanence. That has always been the human condition, of course, but seldom has there been a year when staying alive felt more urgent.

William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The Times.

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