Death and infection were closely linked from the start of the HIV epidemic, until successful treatments became available. The initial impact of mostly young, gay men dying from HIV was powerful in shaping UK responses. Neoliberal discourses developed at the same time, particularly focusing on how citizens (rather than the state) could take responsibility to improve their health. Subsequently ‘successful ageing’ became an allied discourse. Our study reflected on a broad range of meanings around death within the historical UK epidemic, advantageous to understanding how dying narratives shape contemporary experiences of HIV. Fifty-one participants including people living with HIV, professionals, and activists were recruited for semi-structured interviews. Assuming a symbolic interactionist framework, analysis highlighted how HIV deaths were initially experienced as traumatic, but also energizing, leading to creative responses. With effective therapies, dying changed shape socially (e.g. loss of death literacy), and better integration of palliative care was a recommendation.