When you write about people who have received a death sentence, eventually you must write that they have died. Even those who outdance their grim fate, as Frank Bender did so splendidly.

If a city is a quilt of vibrant patches, Philadelphia suffered an irreparable tear with the loss of a colorful character who lived large honoring the dead.

Bender was a commercial photographer and painter before discovering a unique gift to stare at skulls and see faces and features. In the emptiness of anonymous crime victims, he found humanity.

His astonishingly accurate clay busts helped investigators identify dozens of John and Jane Does. Rarely has one man healed so many families.

Bender was arguably the world's best-known forensic sculptor in 2009 when I reported he had pleural mesothelioma. He suspected that sleeping in a Navy destroyer escort's engine room in the 1950s had made him sick. He was given just eight months to live.

Last fall, I shared that Bender remained very much alive. He had recently gone dancing and target shooting. After our lunch, he walked to La Colombe for espresso.

As he deteriorated this summer, Bender, 70, was determined to highlight one final case: a woman whose remains had been found a decade ago near Easton, Pa.

Irrepressibly, Bender landed write-ups in the New York Times and People, looking gaunt and more like Vladimir Lenin than ever.

On Thursday, he ate lunch at his butcher shop-turned-home studio on South Street. The chicken was divine. But time ran out.

Seeing faces in bones

"I spoke to him a couple hours before he died," Karen Mintz told me. "We were going to meet at the Art Museum Saturday."

Mintz trailed Bender for 18 months for her documentary, The Recomposer of the Decomposed (frankbender.squarespace.com). The filmmaker has 60 hours of film but, like her muse, no money.

"In a way," Mintz said, "Frank's work was thankless."

Bringing back the dead could take months, but netted him less than $2,000. When Mintz pitched a TV series about Bender, producers gasped at how little money the legend commanded for his services.

Police chiefs claimed they couldn't afford more. But surely Bender deserved riches for giving grieving families priceless closure.

Peggy Davis Malascalza's teenage daughter, Jacqueline Gough, disappeared from a Kensington corner in 1979. Her family held out hope until 1995, when Bender's sculpture and a tooth from the crime scene linked her to a body dumped in a Leithgow Street basement.

"Jackie had a deformed lip from being bit by a dog. He even had that!" marveled Malascalza.

She managed to have Jackie's remains exhumed and cremated. "Now she's safe, here with me."

Serving a purpose

For an artist who had nightmares about being chased by corpses, Bender was a tireless bon vivant.

The guy loved parties and dancing and had a fierce sense of humor - even as his wife, Jan, lay dying with nonsmoker's lung cancer.

After their diagnoses, Bender painted a ghoul called Cancer Nazi quoting the Beatles, "I want you so bad, it's driving me mad." When disease ravaged his ribs, for torso support he wore a bulletproof vest his police pals had given him.

Recently, Bender hired a car to drive him to the beach. He rode on his back to dull the pain. Unable to walk, he inhaled the sea air and delighted at having saltwater splashed on his swollen legs.

Bender survived a year longer than expected, I was reminded by one of his daughters, Vanessa. "And he had a pretty good year."

Back in 2009, he didn't want to spend any time left sulking or second-guessing. He preferred to think about the mothers in drug-war-torn Juarez, Mexico, praying for his safety as he worked to identify innocents caught in the cross fire.

"I always wanted to serve a purpose," Bender told me. "It's only now I've realized what I've done."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq