Stein died on July 27, 1946 at the age of 72 after surgery for stomach cancer at the local hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was interred in Paris in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
According to the famous version of her last moments which is commonly passed around, before having been taken into surgery, Stein asked her partner Toklas: "What is the answer?" After having replied to Stein that there was no answer, Stein countered by sinking back into her bed, murmuring: "Then, there is no question!"
Her companion Toklas, however, has given two other versions of the encounter—neither of which agrees with the "canonical" version above. Writing in the June 2005 edition of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm describes:
On July 27, 1946, Stein was operated on for what proved to be inoperable stomach cancer and died before coming out of anesthesia. In "What Is Remembered," Toklas wrote of the "troubled, confused and very uncertain" afternoon of the surgery. "I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question?" However, in a letter to Van Vechten ten years earlier, Toklas had written:
About Baby's last words. She said upon waking from a sleep--What is the question. And I didn't answer thinking she was not completely awakened. Then she said again--What is the question and before I could speak she went on--If there is no question then there is no answer.
Stein's biographers have naturally selected the superior "in that case what is the question?" version. Strong narratives win out over weak ones when no obstacle of factuality stands in their way. What Stein actually said remains unknown. That Toklas cited the lesser version in a letter of 1953 is suggestive but not conclusive.
Stein named writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten as her literary executor, and he helped to publish works of hers that remained unpublished at the time of her death. There is a monument to Stein on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, New York.