Death is rarely a cause for celebration, as it is a permanent goodbye to the world you love.
Sometimes, however, the pain of seeing you cry hurts the one who is about to depart more than imminent death itself, and in spite of agonizing pain or being crippled beyond saving, summons up all their courage to sincerely smile one last time for you (or alternatively laughing); a final gesture that beyond all doubt affirms their love for you. If the one smiling in question is a girl (especially if she is an Anime or Video Game character), her final smile will be the single most painfully cute thing you will ever see besides a box of kittens.
It makes a lasting impression as a pretty dignifiedway to go. Usually reserved for the finales of Tear Jerker stories or the climax of a Bittersweet Ending; Let Them Die Happy is when someone intentionally deceives someone so that they will do this. See also Final First Hug and Last Kiss. Sometimes crosses with Out with a Bang. Unless the body dissolves or is destroyed, usually results in Peaceful in Death. Sometimes unredeemed villains die this way, but that is only so their corpses will continue to terrify you after they're gone.
The Mercy Kill may have the dying person evince some self-awareness to show this; similarly, this might be part of Dying as Yourself.
If the character in question have been The Stoic or an Emotionless Girl it might be a case of Death Equals Emotion.
Compare Die Laughing and Died Happily Ever After. When She Smiles is this trope without the death. Contrast Tearful Smile. Often paired with Pietà Plagiarism and Cradling Your Kill.
NOTICE: It is highly likely that simply reading through the examples will be a Tear Jerker for the reader. It is recommended that a box of tissues be handy. And it should go without saying that, being a Death Trope, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
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Anime and Manga
The final episode of Ano-Hana has Meiko Honma aka "Menma" doing this during their final goodbyes. More exactly, she's already dead and a Cute Ghost Girl, but stuck around due to having Ghostly Goals and these only were fulfilled by said final episode.
In One Piece, anybody who has the "Will of the D." (as exposed by having D. as their middle initial) is guilty of this.
The main reason for this it seems concerning those with the "Will of D.", is that they live their lives with absolutely no regrets, and most times die for what they lived for. When you lived your entire life as you wanted, at the end, what is there left to do but smile?
Gold Roger, shown in the flashback that starts every one of the first hundred episodes or so.
Ace's mother, Portgas D. Rouge, died giving birth while smiling and entrusting her child to Garp.
Jaguar D. Saul tells a young, terrified Nico Robin to smile and laugh no matter how grim things get, just before Aokiji freezes him solid; the last thing we see before the ice statue of him is shattered is his still-beaming face.
The image up top shows this one: In Lougetown, when Luffy himself is about to get his head chopped off (on the same platform where Roger was executed), he grins hugely as the sword's coming down and says "Sorry guys, but... I'm dead." Though Luffy doesn't actually get head-chopped, characters note the similarity between him and Roger.
In fact, it was this moment that caused Smoker to chase after Luffy — he saw the similarities with Roger and became the first character to realize how much of a threat Luffy was going to become.
During Ace's fight with Blackbeard, he gets close to death, but on his last attempt at overcoming Blackbeard, he smirks and calmly states his intents to make Whitebeard the Pirate King. While he didn't actually die, he showed the D.'s willingness to smile at death.
Ace fit in naturally during his actual death, when he dies from his injuries from Taking the Bullet to protect Luffy, and after his Famous Last Words to those around him, he collapses with a smile knowing that despite having the blood of a "demon" in his veins, despite being a "good-for-nothing," he was truly loved.
An aversion will be Blackbeard when he sees himself in danger of death at the hands of Whitebeard, resulting in Whitebeard saying he doesn't carry the will of Roger. And he is also too much of an asshole to be a real carrier of the "Will of D".
Aside from the D. family, there is also the death of Belle-mere, and especially her last words to Nojiko and Nami.
Dr. Hiriluk toasted to his wonderful life before drinking a concoction that blew himself up. He also got a great speech about how he would never truly die as long as his dream was seen through.
Later on, in Brook's flashback, we see the final on-screen moments of Captain Yorki of the Rumbar Pirates. It was only briefly implied in the manga, but the anime version of that scene went for the gold. His crew soon follows suit, when they play their favorite song as they die, so that a recording of it could reach their beloved Team Pet.
Fisher Tiger died with a smile after being reassured that after he had freed the slaves from Mariejois and the legends of his adventures, he was a hero of the Fishman Island.
Also Queen Otohime after her oldest son Fukaboshi promises her that they will protect Shirahoshi and collect all the signatures that she had long fought for to get from her people so that her dream of co-existing peacefully with humans can be fulfilled.
Until the very end, the smile doesn't burn off the face of the Going Merry.
Most of the characters in Hellsing die smiling; this is explained by the thing that all vampires (and a werewolf), as immortal beings, held only one desire: to die.
Alucard gives his sanest, most sincere smile in the entire series as he fades away after absorbing Schrodinger.
Misuzu Kamio of AIR. Her final smile for her true mother Haruko is so full of love and so darned adorable.
Similarly, Nagisa's farewell to Tomoya in the CLANNAD movie and the Bad Ending route of the original visual novel, dying after giving birth, was a heartwarming smile of how glad she was to meet her daughter and to have met the love of her life.
It also occurs in the Kyo Ani adaptation, only subtler.
Lets be fair, he knew he wouldn't be resurrected the second time and didn't get the notice that he would get kickass training until he had been dead for a while.
He probably got this from his father Bardock, who tried to kill Frieza to save the Saiyan race. He failed, and just as he was about to die, he saw a vision of his son fighting Frieza and avenging the deaths of their race.
What, nobody's mentioned Piccolo? Just thinking about him leaping in front of Nappa's blast to stop the only friend he's ever had, the son of his worst enemy, from dying... And yet he dies smiling, and crying for the first time in his life. If that isn't a Tear Jerker, I don't know what is.
Vegeta's Atonement. Most badass death with a smile in DBZ.
Android 16 definitely counts. His last words were to encourage one of his creator's nemeses to protect the planet, something which he had grown to love of his own volition. Of all the deaths in the series, his stands alone, as he was purely mechanical and thus had no afterlife to go to/return from. Still he died smiling.
In InuYasha, a fatally wounded Kagura smiles at Sesshomaru as she dissolves into wind. Same goes to Kikyou, firing her definitive death.
Zest also does this for Agito, smiling and telling her that their time together was enjoyable before passing away.
Legato Bluesummers from the Trigun anime is seen smiling when he dies, both because he caused Vash (his killer) to experience "eternal pain and suffering" by making him break his code of pacifism, and because he died for the sake of his master, Knives (Vash's brother).
Both versions of Wolfwood apparently do this, although he has the variation of taking battle damage and then expiring slowly. The anime version goes out kneeling in a church and thinking about his friends. The manga version is sitting on a sofa in a trashed orphanage while the kids he grew up with throw confetti out of an airship to show that they care, and he and Vash share a final drink. The smile doesn't help much with the frustration about his death, since in both cases it could have been avoided.
Kagero of Ninja Scroll smiled with warm happiness as Jubei let her experience True Love at last... before expiring from the treacherous wounds inflicted by Genma.
In the 40th Episode of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, King Izumi Athha detonated his Country's Military Silo to preserve his country's neutrality in a genocidal race war and to buy his daughter, Princess Cagalli, time to escape to space. The trouble is, he has to be there to throw the switch himself. Even after he reveals to her that she is in fact adopted, he tells her with a warm and loving smile "I'm so glad to have been your father" before closing the airlock and spiriting her off to freedom. There was not one dry eye, man or woman, at that Anime Screening in 2003.
Although his face can't be seen because of his helmet, Mu La Flaga laughs during his Heroic Sacrifice at the end of Gundam SEED (although it turns out in Gundam SEED Destiny to have been a Disney Death).
Immediately following him, Natarle Badgiruel smiles serenely as the Archangel destroys the Dominion, content in the knowledge that she's taking Azrael out with her.
Rau Le Creuset is the creepier version of this, dying with a smile after Kira impales him, due to his belief that the entire world will be following him. It's both chilling, and kind of sad at the same time, as you realize what a wreck the man's life truly was.
In Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Schwarz Brudder and Domon's brother Kyouji, who he is robot replica of, smile as Domon destroys the core of the Devil Gundam.
In Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Daguza Mackle enacts a plan that traps the Sinanju and gives Banagher an opportunity to activate the NT-D. After successfully trapping it in with Banagher (if only for a short while) and damaging its Search Eye, Full Frontal retaliates with a his shield-mounted beam saber, and Daguza uses what time he has left to turn to Banagher with a salute and a smile.
This is how Iason dies in Ai no Kusabi after his feelings were finally reciprocated.
Same for Kamina, though true to his values and personality, his dying smile is manly and powerful rather than sweet and cute. And hence, the phrase 'Manly tears were shed.'
In fact, almost every member of Team Dai-Gurren casualty goes out with either a smile or laughing in the face of utter destruction. Jogan and Balinbow were even laughing maniacally while their mecha was exploding, and Kittan grinned at how awesome his final act was.
In Princess Tutu's first-season finale, a ghostly form of Edel smiles and requests a couple to dance together for her one last time, even as her body is burning as a fire to warm someone back to life. Ouch.
Both versions of Chrono Crusade do this, but in separate ways. In the manga Rosette gives Chrono a smile as she tries to reattach his horns with her last breath. But later she comes back to life through sheer force of will. The scene is particularly haunting because Mary Magdalene smiled at the same character before her death, as well. Also, although it's not shown, Rosette's later death is implied to have happened in a similar manner: one of the characters say she looked "peaceful" when they found her. In the anime, they use this for their Tear Jerker ending: Chrono and Rosette are found dead, sitting together on a bench swing with their hands clasped, smiling peacefully.
In Code Geass, both Euphemia li Britannia, Lelouch's loving, sweet half-sister, and Shirley Fenette, his head-over-heels in love primary romance interest die with smiles on their faces.
Slightly subverted in the Grand Finale: Right before Lelouch is stabbed by the new Zero (Suzaku), he smiles. But when he's actually dying in Nunally's arms, he has no expression on his face at all (he probably didn't want to look like he planned anything).
Also mentioned (but not actually performed) when C.C. tells Lelouch that her wish is to die. Charles is about to steal her "code", making her mortal again, but when Lelouch sees the worried look on her face he yells at her that she should at least die with a smile if this was really what she wanted. In the end, it wasn't.
The same thing happened when Naruto took out Itachi with a giant Rasengan, but he smiled because that wasn't Itachi, just a duplicate with a fraction of his power.
Played straight then with Itachi's actual death. As he smiles at Sasuke following their fight he says that there won't be a next time and collapses.
This is particularly effective because when it happened, viewers didn't have the context to understand it, and had to join Sasuke in WTFing and feeling that something, somewhere had Gone Horribly Wrong. Then a few chapters later it retroactively became a Tear Jerker.
Also The Third Hokage dies with a smile on his face, because he believes despite his death, Konoha will be fine as long as the villagers have the 'Will of Fire'.
Jiraiya and Nagato died smiling. Kishimoto likes to have the good guys deaths softened in the knowledge they died at peace, bad guys don't get such a luxury.
Hidan being the exception laughing hard while the rocks are piling on top of him, out of conviction that he'll escape one day.
He's still not dead. Only member of Akatsuki not resurrected as an Edo Tensei confetti zombie.
Kisame is also an exception, as he appeared to die then he really died sporting a psychopathic grin both times (especially the second).
There's a difference between smiling because you're at peace and smiling because you're psychotic.
The Fourth Hokage Minato and Uzumaki Kushina, die smiling. It's more bittersweet than usual in that they know they've basically doomed their son to a life of pain and woe, but are comforted in the fact that they'll be able to help him when the time comes, and have given him the means to overcome the trials that lie ahead.
As of chapter 614, it would seem that Neji now fits this trope too.
In chapter 687, Obito goes out with a smile.
In Sonic X the revolutionary Molly does this, smiling at Shadow through her windshield before piloting her ship directly into the metarex fleet. Also a Crowning Moment Of Awesome.
Cosmo also smiles throughout her death scene, as does Maria Robotnik.
Ryoko Asakura of Haruhi Suzumiya, who despite her evil intentions of slicing Kyon to bits with a knife maintains a smile throughout most of her battle with Yuki and keeps a smiling face as she is being dissolved by Yuki. That just makes her more frightening.
Actually, she doesn't really see the importance of death. In her Image Song, she even states that heartbeats are nothing more than trivial, wave-like patterns.
In Mai-HiME, Takumi Tokiha, Haruka Suzushiro and Yuuichi Tate smile as they die as results of the HiME Carnival.
Done brutally in Alive: The Final Evolution, when victims of the 'suicide virus' gleefully kill themselves, sometimes relenting long enough to do something important to them or encourage others to do the same. Those who are infected with the virus but have yet to succumb to it, and witness the suicides aren't sure whether to be terrified or be jealous.
Princess Emeraude in the finale of the first season of Magic Knight Rayearth. She even gets to thank the Knights for killing her, which means she's free from the curse that her life as the Pillar was.
Bang. Then again, given that Vicious, the man who'd been tormenting his past, is now dead, that last word implies he's going without regrets and could well be smiling.
And because he may or may not be dead. Word Of God is even he's not sure.
In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Misato does this. Whilst she actually dies alone, bleeding out on the floor until someone blows up the level she's on, she sends off the last person to see her alive by pushing him into an elevator, with her giving him a genuinelyloving smile before the doors shut between them and she collapses to the floor.
Done with a different yet slightly more Bad Ass approach in the manga. After sending Shinji off, two soldiers find Misato waiting with a smile and live grenade.
King Bradley/Wrath plays this trope very well, admitting aloud that he's lead a long, pleasant life as he is dying. This is almost ironic, as this man is singlehandedly responsible for the genocide of a race of people, as well as the death of 3 main characters, the slaughter of a sleugh of supporting characters, and the horrific crippling of another. With all this blood on his hands, and without sounding the slightest bit evil or sadistic, he goes out genuinely happy for the fulfilling life he's had.
Greedling: "That's Wrath! ...I see, so we finally got him...*sigh* Bastard dies with that peaceful look on his face...pisses me off."
Greed turns this trope Up to Eleven by laughing maniacally while being rendered down to a Philosopher's Stone.
Later played again by the second Greed when Father destroys him. As he dissolves into air and sees that all of his comrades truly were his friends, he realizes his desires are finally complete. His last expression before dying is a small, content smile.
Then we have shadow Kimblee, who fades into nothingness after helping Edward, laying the verbal smackdown on Pride, smiling, and doffing his cap one final time. Easily his Crowning Moment Of Awesome.
Also, Hohenheim returns to Resembool after the final battle with Father and dies kneeling in front of Trisha's grave.
Pinako outright says so.
Spotting him at Trisha's grave. "...Silly old fool. Well, at least you died with a smile on your face, my friend."
Played with in the 2003 anime version with Greed. After committing Suicide by Cop, he smiles with a peaceful expression. However, his body then contorts in agony before dissolving.
In the Gungrave anime Brandon/Grave and Harry McDowell both die with a smile. Mika doesn't get to Grave in time to see him die, but she realizes that although Grave is gone from her life, her memory of him and the thought that they'll always be "family" no matter what allows her to smile because she realized that Grave finally found his peace.
Grave (to Harry): "Let's go home."
Mika: * smiling through her tears* "I know now...that we're a family...and always will be, forever, and ever."
In Full Metal Panic!... well, it's not so much touching, but Gauron did die with a very happy smile on his face. It was actually genuine, though, and not very pretty. Apparently his happiness came from causing as much pain as he could to the one he loves.
In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, this is both played straight and subverted. Shion smiles (a sad one albeit) in Meakashi-hen when she is falling to her death and mentally promising to not repeat her mistakes; however, it quickly turned into shock when she neared the ground. Played straight with Rena in Onikakushi-hen. She tries to give a delusional and paranoid Keiichi a hug, but is beaten to death.
In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5DsCarly, after her transformation to a Dark Signer, loses the Duel of Darkness against Jack Atlas. She charges him to save the world, smiling as she tells him she'll be cheering for him, and confesses her love as she crumbles into dust. Fortunately, she gets better due to a Deus ex Machina at the end of the season.
Bruno isn't so lucky. Having declared that the loser of his duel against Yusei will disappear, he pushes his Delta Eagle to its limits just to get Yusei out the Black Hole they're in and back to the Arc Cradle. While Yusei calls out to him and reaches out, Bruno just smiles in the last shot we get of him.
Rakan (to Negi): So...yeah. I wanted to take responsibility for my generation and clean up these last bits of shit for you...but I guess you're gonna have to deal with it after all.
Rakan: Sorry. (a few panels later) Ah, well. I'm sure you'll be able to handle it.
And then he revives for a moment and does it again.
Rakan (to Negi): Heh... See ya around, kid. Don't get consumed by the darkness.
Rakan: Don't look back. Keep on moving forward. When a guy keeps his gaze fixed right in front of him...
Rakan: The world smiles on him...
Tosaka did it too, after taking a hit meant for Ako Izumi.
Tosaka: ...Hah... Are you kidding me? Am I dying to protect some useless little former slave of a girl? I guess I really goddamn well am just... a side character... to the end...
In the final episode of Last Exile, Alex Rowe dies with a smile after finally carrying out his long-sought vengeance against Maestro Delphine.
In Toward the Terra, Jonah Matsuka initially seems to have died with a look of numb, wide-eyed surprise, but actually manages to cling to life long enough to telepathically draw Keith, who he was protecting, back from the brink of death before finally expiring with a Tender Tear and a peaceful smile.
One of the few instances of actual facial expression in Transformers Cybertron comes in the form of Vector Prime's final smile as he sacrifices himself to save his friends.
Subverted in Vandread, when The Stoic Meia performs her Heroic Sacrifice to save Ezra's baby daughter, she smiles (a very rare event!) as she throws herself out of an airlock into space. It turns out, however, that their escape pod has just been picked up by the ship, but she didn't know that.
Saiyuki: Kanan smiles as she kills herself in front of Gonou (Hakkai), she was trying to smile for his benefit presumably. Yaone would have done exactly the same thing if she'd gone through with it. Hakkai himself when he thinks he's going to be killed smiles, very creepily, as he pulls out his own eye
In Kekkaishi, Gen dies like this after realizing Kaguro's swords suppressed his regeneration. It was the only time Yoshimori and Tokine saw him smile.
Near the end of the anime, Crona, after Taking the Bullet for Maka, dies smiling in her arms, glad that they were finally able to help her. They came back later, but it's the thought that counts.
At the end of the manga, Crona seals away Asura on the moon, but Asura keeps a tremendous Slasher Smile the whole time, as he remained confident he'll get out again.
Subverted/played with in the very next scene: Spirit, who seems doomed to be killed by the sealing because he was also on the moon, just looks up at Maka and grins while giving her a thumbs-up. He was actually saved at the last second and, more to the point, it's made clear that once Maka couldn't see him but he still thought he was going to die, he stopped smiling and started recoiling in fear and regret.
Medaka Box: Though he doesn't actually die, Zenkichi manages to meet each near death instance with a smile. Naturally, this ends up setting off Medaka.
Sachi from Sword Art Online does this right before she's killed. Her death really troubles Kirito, as he was unable to save his four guild members from the obvious trap/ambush room they entered. And even when he found an item to resurrect players, it was useless to him, as it had to be used within ten seconds of a player's death, but by the time he got the item, Sachi had already been dead for six months.
In Legend of Galactic Heroes, Walter von Schönkopf passed away with a smile after being fatally wounded during the boarding operation against the Imperial supreme flagship Brünhild in episode 108.
The head of an orphanage in Itsuwaribito dies smiling after hearing all the orphans had survived the attack by bandits. This is sadly a Let Them Die Happy envoked by the main character, who couldn't stand telling the man all the orphans had in fact been killed in the attack, because doing so would have made the head die experiencing soul crushing regret.
Parademon: ...tell me a joke, clown. Ragdoll: Dear, loyal demon, I'm afraid you've misjudged me. I don't know any j...wait. You're dying alone in the mud without ever having had a name or a home. Parademon: HAHAHA! See? I told you you were funny...
Made even sadder later when Ragdoll says Parademon was his best friend.
In Ultimate Spider-Man #160, Peter Parker dies in Mary Jane's arms with a (fleeting) smile as he realizes he managed to save all his loved ones. However, the issue closes with the more creepy smile on the lips of the dying Norman Osborn.
The luvcats from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (IDW) are so naturally cheerful and full of love that they don't get any less happy even when the changelings invade their cute little village and start draining them. At one point a changeling commander remarks about "still having plenty of these guys left" while holding one of the leftover luvcats who, despite being esentially kept as a food reserve, still smiles joyfully. Even the luvcat that was apparently murdered off-frame by Queen Chrysalis just kept sitting happily in his last seconds while holding a heart-shaped card that said "Love conquers all".
In Ace Combat The Equestrian War, Derpy's best friend, Carrot Top, kept smiling during her last moments. It's particularly heartwrenching when Carrot asks Derpy to smile as well, but isn't satisfied at first.
Carrot Top: Smile, Derpy... I don’t want... to see... to remember your face... being sad... when I will sleep... Please..... smile.
Claire's mother in The New Retcons died like this, found dead with a smile on her face when waiting to go Christmas shopping with Claire. Particularly heartbreaking in that having found her biological mother Elly Patterson and finding out how dysfunctional her half-siblings are, she was going to make sure the mother that raised her knew how much Claire appreciated it
In The North Remembers, Jorah Mormont dies after being wounded by Daario. But in his final moments, he cites the Night's Watch oath along with Tyrion, and uses the Valyrian horn that he took from Victarion to bring the dragons back under Daenerys's control. When Daenerys finds him, dying, she screams and runs over to his side, cradling him in her arms. He then goes out smiling, thanking her for letting him be her loyal knight.
In The Legacy Of The Blood Ravens, the Force Commander Aramus dies smiling at the night sky in a rare moment of peace in his violent life. He had just singlehandedly defeated the Greater Daemon Ulkair and was left dying from his wounds and the Unclean One's Curse.
In Eugenesis, this is how Doubleheader dies, as he blows himself up in an attempt to kill Rodimus Prime.
Prince Miko Shotoku in Game Of Touhou, she's been a Death Seeker after her city was plundered and she realized that the royalist forces would face inevitable defeat, and she's finally granted her wish at the hands of Ser Elly Kazami. Her smiles comes from her death wish being fulfilled.
In the censored version, Joker dies via electrocution, and it's mentioned that he did indeed have a smile on his face.
On the other hand he does laugh hysterically when the titular character of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm prevents his escaping a massive explosion. He survives, thanks to Joker Immunity, but at the moment it didn't seem like he had any means to get out alive.
His victims all die with a smile, although none of them had much of a choice.
Empire Magazine: There can't be too many gentlemen of a heterosexual persuasion who, if asked how they'd want to die, wouldn't tick the box marked 'crushed to death between Famke Janssen's thighs'.
In Sin City, while Kevin is being cut up and fed, he's still smiling. That's not a tear jerker, though, that's just intensely fucking creepy.
The titular Big Bad of Kill Bill, in the final moments of his life, not only forgives his murderer (who had all the reason in the world to be pissed at him, and he admits it), but assures her that she is still the love of his life with a gentlemanly smile and by telling her she is a wonderful person. If that is not a man, I don't know what is.
Darth Vader could barely move, so horribly did Emperor Palpatine's lightning burn through his heart in the final Star Warsepisode. Yet he implores Luke Skywalker to take off the mask that was his soul's coffin, so that he could look at his son and smile at him just onceas Anakin before passing on. Alas, Poor Villain indeed.
The Terminator of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a variation of this trope. Although he could not cry for the boy that he has come to love but must leave, his "thumb up" to encourage John to courageously go on living is no less touching than the above examples.
T-800: I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do.
Roy Batty in Blade Runner does his famous 'tears in the rain' monologue with a smile on his face before dying in front of Deckard — a man he had just saved and who was, up to that moment, trying to kill him. In the original cut, Deckard muses a second later:
Deckard: "I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life; anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die."
(In the final cut, there is no voiceover, though Harrison Ford manages to convey most of the above monologue through facial expression alone.)
Heartily recommended right before the final battle:
The Joker: As my plastic surgeon used to say, "if you've gotta go, go with a smile!"
The creepy grin frozen on the Joker's face when he shatters all his bones on the pavement of Gotham, with an unnervingly funny laugh from a Laughing-Bag found by Commissioner Gordon on his corpse. In an early draft of the script, his unnaturally frozen smile goes away as he dies.
Exposure to his Smilex nerve gas causes the victim to go into spasms of laughter, before dying minutes later with an extra large smile on their face. This only applies when the poison is absorbed through tampered cosmetic chemicals. The people at the art museum and the parade died in agony.
William Wallace does this in Braveheart, in part because he sees the spirit of his dead wife among the crowd smiling at him as he is being brutally tortured to death.
To an extent this applies to Katsumoto from The Last Samurai. He is smiling just before sustaining his final wound, and dies reflecting upon the beauty of the cherry blossoms he is seeing. "Perfect. They are all perfect."
Not technically dying, but close enough: In The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo's getting on the boat to the Undying Lands, he turns and gives his friends who are staying behind one last smile.
In Ian McKellen's 1995 version of Richard III, the villainous King Richard falls into a gulf of flames with a huge grin, as I'm Sitting on Top of the World plays.
The Purifier in The Chronicles of Riddick cheerfully commits suicide by strolling into the lethal sunlight of Crematoria with a faint but noticeable smile on his face. Even Riddick was shocked.
In the 1962 movie version of Billy Budd, you get this for the villain, but it's definitely not the "sniff sniff" version. The SOB dies with a smile of victory, knowing the hero who pwn'd him is doomed. Add that said character is played by Robert Ryan. The guy was really creepy.
In the 2010 version of Clash of the Titans, this happens when Cynical Mentor Draco aids Perseus in his climactic battle with Medusa. He knowingly sacrifices himself to stall her by impaling her tail with a stalactite. As she turns her petrifying gaze towards him, he calmly tells the hero to tell all that "men did this," before smiling smugly as he is turned to stone. An enraged Medusa shatters his petrified form afterward.
In the 1973 The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, government intelligence high-up Bernard Milan gets shot along with a bunch of operatives - when he finds out the title character everyone was shooting each other over was just a decoy set up by his long-time agency rival, he manages to laugh about it as he's dying.
In The Fountain, Tom the space traveler finally achieves peace with death moments before the nearby star goes nova. He's smiling as he's vaporized.
TRON: When the dying Ram realizes that Flynn is a User, and there to help - thus validating the belief he was persecuted for by the MCP.
Played for laughs in Cannibal The Musical. One character is fatally shot while singing a song. Later, another character remarks how peaceful he looks. The camera cuts to a shot of the corpse with a giant, goofy grin.
In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the titular character Ghost Dog, having already stoically Faced Death With Dignity is lying in the street after having been shot several times. One of his trained pigeons flies down next to him, which causes him to smile in simple pleasure just before he dies.
In Field of Dreams, Dr. "Moonlight" Graham does this twice for Ray's benefit, along with saying a Catch Phrase. There is one twist: he's already dead.
Mr. Dawes Sr at the end Mary Poppins. After exposure to the Man-With-A-Wooden-Leg-Named-Smith joke, he spends a few minutes mulling the punchline over before starting to laugh riotlessly. While his son was initially shocked, he would later admit it was a Great Way to Go. "Never seen him happier in his life."
In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent smiles reassuringly at Clark just before the tornado takes him.
In Godzilla (2014), Sandra Brody goes out with a tearstained and strained smile.
In The Outsiders, Dally does this after Johnny dies. He robs a store and pulls out an unloaded gun on the cops so that they would shoot him. Ponyboy says he had a look of grim satisfaction as he fell.
In Les Misérables, Enjolras gives one of these to Grantaire before they are killed.
In Wilfred Owen's poem, "S.I.W." (stands for "self-inflicted wound") a soldier kills himself to escape an incomprehensible hell. His comrades bury the gun with him, and all they tell his mother is that he died smiling - which is true.
In The Dresden Files, Shiro dies with a smile on his face, which is both something of Crowning Moment of Awesome, considering how he died, and a Tearjerker because he was old, kind, and sacrificed himself for Harry. It is quite possible that Harry never entirely gets over it.
He is cited as a reason by Harry, with Sanya's support, to go out and kill the Denarians as fast as possible. When another of his friends, Michael, is severely injured, Harry loses it. Spectacularly.
Back in Fool Moon, MacFinn does this after Harry puts him down.
A variant: At the end of The Amber Spyglass, as Will is about to seal off the window between his and Lyra's world, sundering them forever (and as Will thinks "Being cheerful startsnow"), they take one last look at each other, and Lyra smiles through her tears. They share their Last Kiss at this moment, and then, Will closes the window.
Data offers one of these to Riker, via shuttlecraft viewscreen, in the Star Trek TNG novelization, Ghost Ship moments before being snatched up by some huge, malevolent, ship devouring entity and having his "life essence" sucked out of him. There's a bitter tang to it, in that Data was trying to prove to himself he was actually alive enough to die in the first place, and Riker had just told Data that it didn't even matter and he had finally let go of his prejudices (which a couple of the writers like reminding us of) and now considered him to be "alive" instead of just a machine, moments earlier.
Peter Pan sort of fits into this trope: at one point, Peter has saved Tiger Lily but thinks he is going to drown. At first he is scared, but then he stands up, grins, and says "To die would be a very big adventure." However, the only person around to hear him is the reader. He lives through this.
In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000Ultramarines novel Dead Sky Black Sun, Larana Utorian, dying and deranged by her suffering at the hands of the Chaos forces, nevertheless manages to collect her wits and smile at the dying Leonid, thus giving him the courage to set off a grenade, killing them and the Chaos forces that could have pursued those of their party who could escape.
In Dracula, every vampire that gets killed leaves a smiling corpse, with the implication that their vampiric nature was a curse they're glad to be free of. (Even Dracula himself, in the moment between his death and his body crumbling to dust.) Van Helsing stated that this was the main reason he was able to keep executing the helpless brides — because he was saving their souls by doing so. Quincy Morris died this way as well after taking down Dracula and saving Mina's soul from his taint.
"And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman."
In Fred Saberhagen's The Dracula Tape, the Count hangs a somewhat cynical lampshade on this by observing that nothing seems to make a vampire look more 'at peace' to breathing humans than the knowledge that he or she is finally safely dead.
In Holes, Kathleen Barlow ("Kissin' Kate Barlow") is taken in for arrest, to be tortured for information. Before they can do anything to her, however, a Yellow Spotted Lizard bites her on the ankle, which causes a slow, painful death; and Kate dies laughing, as "there was nothing more they could do to her now", and the knowledge of the location of her loot would die with her.
In the short story "Call me Joe", when a man is dying (after dumping most of his mind into an artificial body, similar to the ending of the Avatar), the doctor remarks that he saw many people who didn't want to live, but this is the first one to smile until the last moment.
In a short story by Robert Sheckley, a planet has a civilization of Death Seekers, who believe that the only way to heaven is violent death, the more painful, the better (with every person having his own death, so wars are nonexistent). Naturally, whenever that is achieved (whether by real accident, through priests' decision, or by self arranged "accidents"), the trope is followed most literally, including with one guy who sawed a thorny bush until it fell on him (took him an hour to die).
A Song of Ice and Fire has Tywin Lannister who almost never smiled in life practically grinning during his funeral. This is something of a subversion, because most of the characters are convinced that his mouth is twisting as a side effect of the corpse rotting, but Tywin's sister Genna seems to hope that it is this trope. Jaime meanwhile, is mildly amused by it:
In Jurassic Park, Malcolm, after chapter upon chapter of getting angry at Hammond's ignorance and scientists in general, dies with a smile. He gets better, though.
In Feet of Clay, the mad golem king smiles the instant before it is fatally punched by Dorfl.
Live Action TV
In Sons of Anarchys05e03 Opie, just before receiving a fatal blow to the head from a lead pipe, delivered by a member of a rival gang. Also, Heroic Sacrifice
Subverted in the Supernatural episode "No Rest For The Wicked". Dean might have smiled at his crying brother but it's one of those smiles that you do when you're trying to be brave, trying not to throw up from fear and trying not to cry yourself. And then he sees the Hellhound come to kill him, freaks and runs into another room with Sam and Ruby, and is torn apart in there a few minutes later while Sam watches helplessly.
In Smallville, right before Jonathan Kent succumbs to his heart attack, he attempts to smile one last time to his family and tell them "I love you." Oh geeze...
After a brutal fight with Clark, Titan realizes he has been fatally impaled by his own arm-spike. He smiles while stating "Good fight" and drops dead.
The Third Doctor uses his last moments to comfort Sarah Jane. "A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don't cry. While there's life, there's..."
The Fourth Doctor, despite being clearly terrified and in pain, suddenly flashes his trademark Cheshire Cat Grin in a final moment of defiance before he quietly says his last words and dies.
The Ninth Doctor gets one of these just as he starts regenerating, during a fond farewell to Rose. Number 10 reawakens from the regeneration still smiling and ready to resume the pair's trip to (the planet) Barcelona.
In "Last of the Time Lords", the Master technically gets to do this as he dies; he taunts the Doctor for not being able to save him, thus meaning the Master finally wins over the Doctor.
River Song's final words to the Doctor in "Forest of the Dead" are a tearful, smiling "Spoilers."
The War Doctor regenerates smiling, knowing that he has regained the title of the Doctor even if he'll forget he saved Gallifrey.
Having spent long enough in his current body to grow old, the Eleventh Doctor delivers one last speech, removes his bowtie for the final time, and gives Clara one last sad-but-reassuring smile before regenerating into his twelfth body.
His mother too in the flashback after Spike stakes her.
On the Angel end, Wesley dies that way while Illyria's "lying to him" and taking Fred's appearance.
In the second season finale of Torchwood, Tosh has been gut-shot by Jack's brother. As she's lying on the floor, bleeding out, Jack and Gwen find her. You think for a second that they made it just in time to save her, but when Tosh looks at Jack with a smile on her face, Jack gives her a pained smile back and she dies looking at him.
In the LOST episode "Through the Looking Glass", Charlie gives one last smile before he drowns.
And in the finale Jack smiles as he lies dying and watches the plane carrying the remaining survivors fly overhead.
In "This Place is Death", a seriously ill Charlotte smiles as she regresses back to her childhood before suddenly dying seconds later.
In Lexx, the original Zev and the resurrected Kai die with a smile and a laugh, respectively.
In Robin Hood, Marian dies with a smile on her face as she finally marries Robin (despite the sword impaling her stomach).
In The Mentalist, Bosco not only smiles himself, but manages to make a tearful, distraught Lisbon who loves him (and they've just had an Anguished Declaration of Love), smile. Just the most heart-wrenching death.
Narrowly averted in Merlin after Lancelot is captured and about to be executed after securing Guinevere's escape from a warlord's keep. When he's threatened with a slow and painful death, he only gives a beautific smile and tells them that because Guinevere is safe, he dies happy. Only for the men to drag a recaptured Guinevere back into the arena. But then Prince Arthur saves them both anyway.
At the start of the fourth series Lancelot gets another chance to Go Out with a Smile, and manages it this time when he walks into the veil into the spirit world, thereby healing the rift between the worlds.
And then he does it again in Lancelot du Lac. After spending most of the episode as a Soulless Shell, Merlin frees him at the end. He thanks him and smiles, and Merlin gives him a Viking Funeral on the waters of Avalon.
Sir Leon tries in the season 3 finale, but Morgana doesn't kill him and the other knights; she has innocent townspeople slaughtered, instead.
Arthur does this in the Grand Finale as Camelot has won the battle of Camlann and the threat of Morgana is eliminated, courtesy of Merlin
Beautifully done in Farscape. After absorbing a lethal amount of radiation the clone of John Crichton smiles at Aeryn Sun and delivers one of the most heartbreaking lines in the series. "Don't worry about me, I've never felt better."
Archie Kennedy in the sixth installment of the Horatio Hornblower mini-series, after saving Horatio's life and career. Albeit something of a tearful-looking smile (and largely there for Horatio's sake), but still one that could light up a room.
Kendrix from Lost Galaxy. She gave up her life to stop Psycho Pink's ever growing power, and to retrieve Cassie's morpher. She slashed the sword, and dies in the explosion. Her ghost appears before the Lost Galaxy and Space Rangers, telling them that she's okay, and that she'll always be there for them.
Philip in Kamen Rider W. Large portions of the episode are devoted to the characters wanting to make sure he does so, rather than go out in pain.
H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13 does this for Myka after safely sealing her and Pete and Artie in a force field to protect them from an impending explosion but leaves her unprotected to be hit full force by the blast.
Nathan Stark in Eureka smiles as he sacrifices his life to save the universe. He's frozen in that position for a second before disintegrating.
Paul Kellerman in Prison Break tells the cops in the van that the French considered it honourable to smile before being executed by firing squad. He then smiles as a group of armed masked men open the door and says "took you long enough".
Henrietta "Etta" Bishop in Season Five of Fringe when Olivia tells her that she loves her.
In The X-Files episode "The Unnatural", Josh Exley is a gray alien shapeshifter who has disguised himself as an African-American minor league baseball player in the 1940s. When his secret is discovered, he explains that his race doesn't understand fun and don't have a word for laughter, and he needed to pretend to be human for that. When he is ultimately killed by the relentless alien bounty hunter, he inexplicably bleeds red human blood. He stares at it in surprise for a moment, then smiles, laughs, and dies.
The Body-Of-The-Week in one episode of Six Feet Under was a teenage girl who had this. She and her friends were having a slumber party and played a phone prank. They were laughing about it when the girl fell backwards off the bed and hit the floor head-first, dying instantly.
Walter White of Breaking Baddies of a gunshot wound from his M60 after using it, and some ricin, to wipe out all of his enemies, getting Skyler a deal for the DEA, leaving money behind for his children and, unexpectedly even to him, eventually saving Jesse, all in one final, brilliant gambit. The final scene has him walking through the meth lab, nostalgically and lovingly before dying while Badfinger's Baby Blue plays in the background, signifying he's dying alongside his greatest love, his blue meth.
In Vocaloid Kagamine Len's Servant of Evil (and Meiko's Daughter of Vengeance), he smiles as he stands at the guillotine.
In the music video for "The Islander", an old ship captain turned lighthouse keeper commits suicide by tying an anchor to his legs and then pushing said anchor off a very high ledge (in the song itself, it's meant to be a ship out on the water). He's smiling just before being dragged to his death.
The end of the chorus of "Fences" by Paramore features the line: 'So smile/'Cause you'll go out in style.'
Used cynically by Geese Howard at Terry or Andy's ending of Real Bout Fatal Fury. As he pushes himself out of either Bogard's grip, Geese Howard grins and laughs maniacally during the fall to his death, saddling Terry (if you play with him) with the guilt of having orphaned Geese's son Rock (much the same way he orphaned Terry and Andy).
Iris in Mega Man X 4. Unfortunately, in the US version, this is also one of the most infamous Narm moments.
Several of the major assassination targets in Assassin's Creed I deliver their final words with smiles at Altaïr, usually because they're convinced that even in death their plans are still going to be completed. Robert de Sable's smile is a bit crueler; he delivers it firm in the belief that Altaïr will be killed by his own master, al-Mualim, and that all of Altaïr's work will be for nothing now that he's delivered the Holy Land into his hands.
In Tales of Symphonia, when Colette is sacrificing herself as part of the World Regeneration, just before her soul would be sealed into her Cruxis Crystal, so her body could be used for Martel Yggdrasill's resurrection, she smiles and tells her beloved Lloyd how happy he made her then after a goodbye, her soul is lost. However, Colette doesn't actually die, and is restored to her normal, non-dog-kicking, non-horrific-eyed self not too long after this event.
In the OVA, the previous event eventually sends Lloyd into a Crowning Moment Of Awesome, when he kills Remiel, the deceptuous Angel responsible for causing Colette's presumed death. While this occurs in the game, it is nowhere near as awesome.
This sort of applies to Zelos, if you kill him. When you strike the final blow in the boss battle, he laughs, and keeps chuckling all through his dying cutscene. Considering he's a Death Seeker, it makes a lot of horrible sense.
In Valkyria Chronicles, Isara Gunther gets shot down, out of the blue, by an Imperial sniper. As she lies dying, she says that she failed to make her brother's dream- to fly- a reality. When Welkin says that she, in fact, has made it such, she dies with a smile.
Big Bad Dahau also does it at the end of Valkyria Chronicles III, the soul of his wife telling him that now he can rest. (Possibly just a hallucination.) Earlier on, your comrade turned traitor Gusurg also dies smiling in your arm after you send kill him in battle. On the other hand, Lydia dies laughing, saying that this war isn't entirely bad.
In Shadow Hearts, Alice hides the fact that she will soon die from a curse from Yuri and goes on cheerfully, dying in her sleep with a smile in the bad ending. In Covenant, when the attempt to resurrect her fails, she opens her eyes, smiles, and tells Yuri she loves him right before her body disintegrates.
Sora from Kingdom Hearts smiled, before he stabbed himself with Xehanort's dark keyblade to free Kairi.
Axel also smiles before fading away into nothingness after his suicide attack on the Dusks in the sequel.
And in 358/2 Days, after Roxas defeats Xion in a boss battle, Xion smiles at Roxas one last time in his arms as she fades away.
Daniella from Haunting Ground smiles after a shard of glass impales her from above. When you examine her body, Fiona mentions that, after she had shown no emotionssave forhomicidal fury, she was now grinning from ear to ear. Although there's no direct explanation given, fans speculate that either Daniella felt the sensation of pain for the first time, something that she (being a homunculus) could not ordinarily experience, or that she hated herself and that dying was a relief.
The Main Character in Persona 3 reaches up to dry Aigis's tears and gives her a heartfelt smile before falling asleep for eternity.
As well as Shinji, who, while bleeding to death out of two point-blank gunshot wounds, not only sneers at his would-be killer, and asks why he looks so sad, since this is what he wanted, but stands up, walks a few feet, throws back his head, laughs, assures everyone that this is how it should be, and collapses. Much more of a tear-jerker than it sounds like.
Made even worse in the PSP remake, where Shinji and everyone else thinks he's dying after he takes two gunshots to the chest, and he tells the FeMC (if you chose her) not to cry because it was supposed to be this way Tear Jerker.
In the final scenes of the game, the sociopath Takaya limps up to the top of Tartarus to laugh in the party's face as, despite all their efforts, Nyx is still coming to end all life. Even though the heroes hadn't injured him fatally, he collapses on his back and smiles to welcome the end, thinking of his (dead) partner Jin, implying that he willed himself to die as reward for fulfilling their plans.
Although he doesn't die, Sergeant Cyrus believes in this. As he knows that he will die one day in battle, regardless of his skill or experience, he's come to realize that death is not exactly the best thing to do. When Sergeant Thaddeus asks him, Cyrus merely tells him to save some of the victory feelings he gets when he has beaten a very tough opponent, so that when the end does come, you can remember the feeling you got when you won and not have bad things to consider.
In the True Ending of BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, just as Hazama is about to deliver the killing blow to Ragna, Lambda teleports in front of Ragna and takes the blow for him. She dies peacefully in Ragna's arms while telling him how much she loves him and how happy she was to sacrifice herself for him.
Yasha dies smiling after his last battle with Asura, in hope that the now powered up Asura can save the world.
And finally, in the DLC ending, Asura himself dies after destroying Chakravartin and removes Mantra from the universe. As he fades away, he accepts his death and gives his sobbing daughter one last smile, finally free of his wrath.
Another variation is made with Zelda. A variation in the fact that she doesn't die, but she locks herself in a crystal to fall into a deep sleep for thousands of years, to keep Demise at bay - which could be considered similar to death. After Link promises to wake her up, you can see her tearfully smile behind the crystal just before she falls asleep. She does, however, wake up later in the game.
Several people in Mass Effect go out like this: If you convince Saren to off himself, he whispers "thank you," and his face looks, if not smiling, then at least calm (he is a turian).
Several of your squadmates do something like this if they die during the suicide mission.
Mordin:"I'm not. Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong."
Also in Mass Effect 3: Anderson dies with a peaceful smile after telling Shepard how proud he is of her/him. Shepard seems ready to do the same before a call from Hackett and an intervention from the Catalyst pull her/him out of it.
In Warcraft III, Grom Hellscream suffers mortal injuries slaying the demon that corrupted him and his entire race via a Deal with the Devil. As he lies dying, he offers Thrall a smile and tells him that he can feel the corruption leaving his body (shown by his eyes no longer glowing with demonic flame), and dies satisfied that he freed himself.
In Final Fantasy XIII-2, the Yeul of 200AF (the one who likes to pick flowers) dies smiling after seeing a vision of a happy version of Academia in 400AF, where there is no proto Fal'cie.
In Disney Princess Enchanted Journey, after her plans have been foiled, Zara starts to cry... until the player character offers to hold her hand. Zara smiles peacefully and takes her hand, and disappears.
The opening of DarkPrison shows Shu Shirakawa smiling inside his Neo Granzon when Masaki in his Cybuster impales him, at the climax of Original Generation Gaiden.
In Fate/stay night, both the Fate and Unlimited Blade Works' scenarios endings. Archer's death in UBW is perhaps made more poignant by the fact that he knows very well that he's going back to his own Special Hell where he'll see the evils of humanity over and over again, but still smiles and reassures his ex-partner that he'll be fine.
Caster's Master Kuzuki in the anime storyline assured her as she was fading away that he was fine; so she could return to the throne happy. After she's gone, he dies.
While being devoured from the inside by True Assassin, Assassin is rather calm despite apparent limb removal and said devouring thing and is chatting fairly casually through the whole thing, probably not losing his smile because it is all the dignity he can still really spare here.
Even Gilgamesh gets one in the Fate route; as he lies dying from a direct hit from Excalibur, his last act is to smile, compliment his killer Saber on her beauty, and say that his interactions with her were 'truly fun'.
In the True Ending of Heaven's Feel, the last glimpse of Ilya as she makes her Heroic Sacrifice reveals that she is smiling at Shirou.
Cruelly played with in one of the School Days bad endings. Kotonoha has an insane, lifeless smile on her lips when she throws herself off a building, after Makoto picks her love rival Sekai over her. They end up traumatised forever and split up after some time.
In Danganronpa, Sakura Oogami commits suicide to save her family's dojo by fulfilling Monobear's order to kill someone, and to restore trust among the remaining students. So confident is she that this was the right choice that there's a smile on her lips when the others discover the body.
In The Order of the Stick, Lord Shojo dies smiling, when Miko Miyazaki Falls as a result of fatally wounding him and he takes this as a sign that the gods approve of what he's done. He resisted resurrection in a later strip, indicating he was not too sorry to be dead.
Miko herself dies with a smile in strip 464, on being told that Windstriker, her horse (and only friend) will visit her in the afterlife even though she has failed to redeem herself.
Lord Kubota, if only because he's unexpectedly killed in the middle of his Evil Gloating.
Near the end of the Soul of Storms arc in Dominic Deegan, Klo Tark valiantly sacrifices himself by switching places with Dominic in the Elemecca. As the device's repair magics violently purges him, he gives Dominic one last smile.
In Justice League, Darkseid was left to die on an exploding asteroid after being beaten by Superman. Darkseid's only reaction to his impending death? Sneer and mock Superman's failure to kill him personally.
Darkseid: Heh. Loser.
In the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Owlman, now stranded on a deserted planet with a huge bomb after attempting to use it to destroy the entire universe, smiles before it blows.
Owlman: "It doesn't matter..."
When Transformers Armada Starscream does his death monologue with a sword through his chest, he's got a heartbreakingly peaceful smile on his face—the first he's had in the entire series.
Antauri from Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! who sacrificed himself with the most adorable little smile so that he could stop the Dark One Worm from destroying everything and everyone. Sure he came back two episodes later, but he didn't know he would at the time.
In the American Dad! episode "Rapture's Delight" Stan takes a shot meant for Jesus and also sets off a time bomb meant to destroy the lair of the Anti-Christ. While he is offered the chance of being raptured to Heaven Stan turns it down because the bomb will go off before Jesus can perform the spell. After kissing Francine Stan is left alone with a cigar and a grin just as the bomb goes off, promptly killing him.
In Winx Club, before Nabu died after sealing the Wizards of the Black Circle's chasm, he smiled at Aisha while telling her that he would always be with her and that he loved her.
Wakfu: Tristepin. "I'm not dying, Evangelyne. I'm entering the legend."
In Darkwing Duck, Mad Artist Splatter Phoenix died when she was doused with turpentine, much like the monsters she created using paint did. (Apparently, she was the same.) Before she melted away, she said that at least her paintings would be appreciated and valued more when she was gone.
The grave of Robert Baden Powell (the founder of the scouting movement) has a dot in a circle engraved upon the gravestone. Any scout will recognize it as a symbol from a code normally used on trails to leave simple messages. The symbol means "I have completed my task and gone home".
Some versions of the John Henry story have him smiling right before dying from overwork after winning a race to see who can cover a length of track the fastest.
A most famous real life example is of Shemp Howard, one of the Three Stooges. He died in the back of a taxi cab while lighting up a cigar and telling a joke after coming home from the boxing match. Knowing Shemp's personality, He Would Have Wanted It That Way.
In 2011 in the Seattle area, a middle-aged (not old) hobby fisherman caught a 20-lb. salmon, the biggest fish of his life. He turned to a stranger, said happily, "This is the fish of my dreams," then fell into the river and died of a heart attack. They barbecued the salmon and ate it at his wake.
According to his wife, Roger Ebert died this way, succumbing peacefully to cancer on April 4th, 2013.
Chaz Ebert: "We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition."