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2016: The Year of Celebrity Death Continues

Getty / Orion / Brian Morgan

2016: The Year of Celebrity Death Continues

Linnea Crowther writes celebrity obituaries for Legacy.com, the global leader in online obituaries. After seeing dozens of Facebook posts early this year asking why so many celebrities were dying all of a sudden, she set out to determine whether 2016 really is "the year of the celebrity death." Her April article and its July follow-up found that the public perception was right: An unusual number of celebrities died in the first half of 2016, at relatively young ages.

In July, I predicted that the third quarter of 2016 would be quieter, with the celebrity death rate substantially lower than in the first two quarters. It wasn't long before that prediction started to fail …

We were about halfway through the third quarter of 2016 when I figured out that my prediction was probably going to be wrong. Then actor Gene Wilder died, and I got rid of the "probably." In most respects, the third quarter of 2016 echoed the first two quarters. We saw many celebrities die, the world lost a number of its icons, and the average age of death was much lower than normal.

By my count – using the same methodology that I used in the first and second quarters of 2016 – 17 celebrities died in July, August, and September 2016. That is, in fact, lower than the numbers in the first quarter – 32 – and the second quarter – 21. But it's not all that much lower … and just as we saw in the first half of the year, more celebrities died in the third quarter of 2016 than in the third quarters of most other recent years.

Also just as in the first half of the year, a high percentage of the celebrities who died in the third quarter were major celebrities. I tagged six of those 17 as major: "Willy Wonka" star Gene Wilder, golf legend Arnold Palmer, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, "Happy Days" and "Pretty Woman" director Garry Marshall, Major League Baseball All-Star Jose Fernandez, and Israeli leader Shimon Peres.

That's 35 percent of the total, and if we're looking strictly at that ratio of major celebrity deaths to total celebrity deaths, Q3 outpaced both Q1 and Q2. The percentage of celebrities tagged as "major" in Q1 was 28 percent, and in Q2 it was 33 percent. So far in 2016, it's a percentage that's growing each quarter. As in the first half of the year, we're really noticing these celebrity deaths because it feels as if we're losing not just well-known people, but icons. And lots of them.

How did Q3 2016 compare to previous Q3s? The drop in the total number of deaths is normal, though this year didn't see as sharp a drop as usual. In most years, there are about 25 percent fewer deaths in Q3 than in Q2. In 2016, there were 19 percent fewer. The trend toward fewer deaths in Q3 makes sense because of the essentially guaranteed yearly drop in the death rate during the summer months. I always expected that fewer celebrities would die in Q3 than did in Q2, mainly because of that solid annual trend.

With six major celebrity deaths in Q3 2016, for 35 percent of the total, we're seeing a higher concentration of icons dying than in previous years – in 2010 to 2015, an average of 26 percent of the celebrity deaths were major, iconic celebrities.

The average age of death continues to skew a little young in Q3 2016. The Q3 average age was 74.4, which was a little higher than in the first two quarters of the year (73.6 and 70.9). That's because there were a number of celebrities in their 80s and 90s who died in Q3 – Arnold Palmer and Elie Wiesel were 87, Shimon Peres and actor Fyvush Finkel 93. The oldest was actor Steven Hill at 94. Those long lives, as well as others in their 80s and 90s, helped push the average age upward.

But 74.35 is still a lot younger than the U.S. average age of death – 79.7 – and it's also younger than the average of the six previous Q3s – 76.0. So 2016's celebrity deaths continue to skew young. Jose Fernandez was just 24 when he died in a boating accident in September. And indeed, accidents are a more frequent cause of death in the summer than in colder months – and they're more likely to claim the lives of young people.

But a number of other deaths in the 40s, 50s, and 60s helped pull the Q3 average age down. Children's author Anna Dewdney died at 50; television psychic Youree "Miss Cleo" Harris was 53; actor Bill Nunn was 62. All three died of cancer. It's the same disease that took the lives of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Joey Feek, Pat Conroy, Bernie Worrell, and others earlier this year.

Indeed, it's tempting to blame cancer for the sadness of 2016, after hearing about so many celebrity deaths from it in such a short time. So far in 2016, 25.4 percent of the celebrity deaths I've noted were a result of some form of cancer. It's a lot. But it's also right in line with the average: Over the past six years, the yearly average of cancer-related celebrity deaths is 25.2 percent. Cancer is awful, no doubt about that, and it claims far too many lives, but so far this year, it's not unusually prevalent.

What about the unusual concentration of deaths in the music world that we've been seeing this year? In Q1 and Q2, an average of 41 percent of the celebrities who died were musicians. That's surprisingly high compared to other years. In Q3 … zero of the celebrity deaths I tagged were of people in the music world. Instead, we saw actors dying over and over in the third quarter. The percentage of actors – 47 percent of the total – isn't unusual compared to other years, but it's certainly different from the first half of the year.

As of Sept. 30, the total number of celebrity deaths so far in 2016 is 71. That's more than the total number of celebrity deaths for the full year in any of the other years I looked at for this study. We're already outpacing previous years by 5 to 20 deaths, and we still have three months to go.

The total number of major celebrity deaths so far in 2016 is 22. Again, that's substantially more than the full-year totals for all the previous years – they range from eight to 19. For the full year. No matter what happens in the fourth quarter, 2016 will be remembered as the year when so many more celebrities died than in a normal year – and so many of them were legends in their fields.

It's hard to make a Q4 prediction because previous years don't give us much of a baseline. In 2010, 2011, and 2014, more celebrities died in Q4 than in Q3. In 2012, 2013, and 2015, fewer celebrities died in Q4 than in Q3. So there's no real pattern that we can expect 2016 to follow … except the pattern it's already in. That pattern suggests that we will see more celebrity deaths in Q4 2016 than in a typical Q4. I'll project roughly 15 to 20 celebrity deaths, of which four or five will qualify as major celebrities.

Of course, that's a projection … not a wish. My wish is that I'll be completely wrong, and only a handful of celebrities, if any, will die in the next few months. And no icons, please! I'll be back with my final update just after the first of the year; in the meantime, let's send good thoughts for continued health and safety to all our favorite celebs.