The Victorians coped with death. They thought about it, talked about it and, eventually, did it, too. But sex was off limits. Today, it's death, not sex, that is taboo, something to be kept in homes, hospitals and hospices.

But we've reached a cultural turning point. No longer do we have to sacrifice discussion about the creation of life for the sake of talking about the end of it, or vice versa. We're doing both, because more people are dying – and dying with dignity – out in the open.

Lynda Bellingham is the latest person in the public eye to have passed away having shone light into the darkest moments of her life. Seriously ill with colon cancer, which had spread to other parts of her body, she quit aggressive chemotherapy treatment and "took back some control of myself".

Bellingham, an actress and television presenter, continued to make media appearances and talk openly about living in the grip of cancer. She wrote a book called There's Something I've Been Dying To Tell You about her experiences.

When she did speak, she was candid and confident as she faced up to her fate, showing the rest of us that it's possible to cope with death.

"Grasp it all, don't be afraid, enjoy the bits you can and tell your family you love them while you have the chance," Bellingham said on the Loose Women show recently, encapsulating her message.

Others have been the same. Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and public intellectual, died in December 2011 after battling with throat cancer. But right up until the end, Hitchens lectured and wrote, debated and argued, as he had done before the illness took hold.

His final book, Mortality, was published posthumously. It was a collection of Hitchens' essays from Vanity Fair on life with cancer and the early death it meant for him.

But this isn't to say he went to the grave with glee. He spoke about the pain at knowing he'd miss out on moments like his children getting married; that he wouldn't live to write the obituary of Henry Kissinger, the nemesis of his rhetorical and journalistic firepower; that he would lose to cancer the recognisable baritone upper-class English voice on which he traded.

What was important, though, was the openness, honesty and characteristic wit with which he handled dying. As well as a terminal nightmare, it was also a writer's dream: subject matter. And Hitchens was a serious writer.

Philip Gould, political strategist and one of the founding fathers of the New Labour movement, also died of throat cancer in 2011. And, like others, he wrote a book on his experience of dying. He used the book, When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, to give a cool-headed take on what it's like to face your impending end, from denial through to acceptance. He said he wanted to help others who have to face a similar decline.

It isn't just the well-educated middle classes who can stare a miserable death in the face with defiance. Death is the ultimate leveller in society. It comes for everyone, smart or stupid, rich or poor, black or white.

Jade Goody was spawned from the early-2000s reality TV boom, when ordinary people became celebrities for no other reason than they were being filmed living in a house for national television. Thanks to the fame Big Brother afforded her, she became a dartboard for British tabloids. A working class woman from London, Goody was raucous, loud, yobbish even. And she was vilified as such.

But she won back the dignity robbed from her by reality TV stardom when she fought a public battle against cervical cancer, covered widely by the same media that had ladled vitriol on her. She died in 2009 and left not a legacy of celebrity triteness, but one that had a far deeper meaning.

Jack Tweed and friends set to cycle from London to Brighton in honour of Big Brother star Jade Goody
Jade Goody faced death in a forthright style PA

Goody had raised the profile of cervical screening for women. Thousands went to get checked as a consequence of the publicity she courted around her illness in an effort to encourage other women to consider the risk to their lives from a hidden cancer.

Some are still alive and powering on against sickness. Clive James, the noted critic, writer and broadcaster, has leukaemia and is terminally ill. Like the others, he is managing his decline. He talks about it freely in interviews and has written poetry on coping with the inevitable and saying farewell to loved ones.

But James has not lost the humour he is known for. He has repeatedly said that the end is nearing, but drily noted at a recent talk in London that it was "another farewell appearance".

"As my friend PJ O'Rourke told me, 'You're going to have to soft pedal this death door stuff, Clive, because people are going to get impatient,'" James later said on BBC Radio 4.

Death shouldn't be something we find difficult to talk about. We'll all face it. There's no escape. But do we really suffer it? Does anyone actually experience death, given that when you die, you're dead? We have far more to fear from the death of others around us than our own final breath. And in a way, we all live on. Humankind is essentially one enormous, growing family.

To many, death is the end of everything. To die is to cease to exist. But to others, it's the beginning of another life. It all depends on your religious or philosophical view.

"I don't have a body, I am a body," wrote Hitchens, a strident atheist, in one of his Mortality essays, capturing the divide in perceptions of death.

There is no reason to worry, or be fearful, or coy. There is hope in the truth. In order to live, you must one day die. But in order to die, you must have lived. And to have lived, to have eaten from life's diverse buffet, is everything.

People like Lynda Bellingham and the others remind us that it is possible to be brave, despite our fears, when facing death. And they show us how important it is to talk about rather than ignore The End, The Final Curtain, kicking the bucket or whatever euphemism makes it easier to discuss.

It is philosophical catharsis not just for those whose death is imminent, but for those of us who'll face it sooner or later, too.