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2016’s Celebrity Death Boom: The Surprising Final Analysis

Images via AP & Getty

Legacy's senior obituary writer crunched the year-end celebrity numbers. She wasn't expecting some of the twists she found.

Linnea Crowther writes celebrity obituaries for Legacy.com, the global leader in online obituaries. After seeing dozens of Facebook posts in early 2016 asking why so many celebrities were dying all of a sudden, she set out to determine whether 2016 really was "the year of celebrity death." Now that the year has turned, she looks at 2016’s final statistics and considers what they might mean.

When I began studying the celebrity death statistics last spring, I discovered that the public perception was correct: More celebrities seemed to be dying than in previous years. The trend held true through summer and fall, and when I wrote my last update back in early October, I made a prediction. I said that the fourth quarter of 2016 – October through December – would continue the trend of the year to date, with more celebrities dying than typical for recent years. I even went so far as to project a number: I said 15 to 20 celebrities would die, and four or five of them would be truly major celebrities.

Then we got to December and learned that I am not a psychic.

I was right when I predicted that the trend would continue. What I got wrong was the number. I thought Q4 2016 would see a moderate increase in celebrity deaths over recent years. In fact, not only did I underproject the increase, it turned out to be the hardest-hit quarter of the year in terms of major celebrity deaths.

According to my count, there were 24 celebrity deaths in Q4, and 10 of them were major celebrities. That's more than the nine major celebrities who died in Q1 – and with the celebrity death total in Q1 topping out at 32, the percentage of major celebrities vs. other celebrities in Q4 is massive in comparison. Back in Q1, 28 percent of the celebrity deaths were major. In Q4, that number shot up to 42 percent.

The Q4 statistics pushed the 2016 celebrity death totals to a clear, incontrovertible high.

From Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2016, I counted 95 total celebrity deaths, as compared to an average of 59 per year in 2010-15. Of those 95, I identified 32 as major celebrities, while the previous years’ average was just 13. That means 2016 saw 38 percent more celebrity deaths than typical for the decade – and 61 percent more major celebrity deaths.

Let’s consider: What does it all mean?

WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY CELEBRITY

First, a word on my methodology: What I strove to do in this project was to distinguish between two tiers of famous people – celebrities, and major celebrities. I identified celebrities as people whose names you may or may not know, but you've very likely heard of their biggest credits. In Q4, an example is Ron Glass. His name isn't on the lips of every American, but he starred in two well-loved TV shows spanning several generations of viewers, "Barney Miller" and "Firefly." You'd probably recognize him if you saw his picture.

Major celebrities, in contrast, are widely known as household names, and their deaths trended strongly on social media. The 10 major celebrities who died in Q4 were former Attorney General Janet Reno, "Brady Bunch" star Florence Henderson, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, NASA astronaut John Glenn, "Growing Pains" star Alan Thicke, “PBS NewsHour” anchor Gwen Ifill, actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, pop star George Michael, "Star Wars" icon Carrie Fisher, and "Singin' in the Rain" star Debbie Reynolds.

Now, Legacy did publish far more than 24 obituaries in our Notable Deaths section in Q4. Not everyone featured in Notable Deaths was a national celebrity; these obituaries include among them people whose accomplishments are remarkable but are known to a smaller subset of the public. In counting celebrities for this study, I only counted the people with the greatest likelihood of being recognizable for their names and/or credits. In this way, I was able to maintain the best possible consistency as I created lists of celebrity deaths for the past seven years: While Legacy may have tweaked its policies over the years as to who merits a Notable Death obituary, the celebrities and major celebrities have always been included. My lists are naturally a bit subjective – we won't all agree 100 percent on who is and isn't a celebrity – but consistency was my most important goal as I created them.

DID CERTAIN TYPES OF PEOPLE DIE MORE THAN OTHERS?

As I've been looking at these lists throughout the year, I've noticed a few noteworthy trends.

– One, of course, was the sheer number of celebrity deaths and the high percentage of major celebrities among them.

– Another was the concentration of musicians dying early in the year, particularly in Q1.

– And a third was the comparatively young average age of death – celebrities in 2016 were dying substantially younger than the U.S. average age of death and substantially younger than the average of the previous six years.

WHO DIED: MUSICIANS VS. ACTORS

In Q4 of 2016, we weren't noticing as many deaths of musicians as we did at the beginning of the year. In fact, seven of the 24 Q4 celebrity deaths were musicians, but I only tagged one as a major celebrity, George Michael (though Leonard CohenLeon RussellSharon Jones, et al. were notable indeed). Another eight of the Q4 deaths were actors, and we did notice that concentration a little more because it included a lot of household names: FisherReynoldsThickeHendersonGabor.

Actors represented 33 percent of the celebrity deaths in Q4 and musicians 29 percent, figures that are just slightly different from the norm in recent years. For the full year, 33 percent of the deaths were actors and another 33 percent were musicians. The averages from 2010 to 2015 were 37 percent actors and 28 percent musicians. So, while we saw a high concentration of musicians dying in Q1, that number leveled off as the year went by, and in the end, the statistics showed that, though some of the musicians who died were particularly iconic, overall it wasn't a disproportionately morbid year for the music world.

WHO DIED: AGE AT DEATH

The average age of the celebrities who died in 2016 also leveled off somewhat in the year's final months, though it still comes out lower than the average age in the previous years. Q2 2016 saw the lowest mean average age, 70.9. But in Q4, a number of celebrities dying in their 80s and 90s balanced out the younger deaths of MichaelFisher, and Ifill, and the mean was 78.0. That's higher than the Q4 average from previous years of 77.6, and it's higher than the full-year average of 76.7 in 2010-15.

The average age of celebrity death for the full year in 2016 still came out low. It was 74.2, 3.3 percent lower than the 76.7 average from the previous years. That lower number was driven by so many young deaths that dragged it down – David BowieAlan Rickman, and Thicke were all 69. Prince was 57. Fisher was 60, Michael 53. Some died heartbreakingly young this year – Anton Yelchin at 27, Jose Fernandez at 24.

(Statistical note: For a population size this small, we calculated averages using the mean rather the more common mode or median. But when we look at the full-year median, it also comes out low – 74 in 2016, as compared to an average of 79.3 for the previous years.)

But a great number of the most notable deaths in 2016 did come at older ages. In Q4, Henderson was 82, Reynolds 84. Castro was 90; Glenn was 95; Gabor was 99. That's exactly half of the major celebrity deaths from the quarter, all significantly older than the average age from previous years. And there were older deaths throughout the earlier part of the year as well: Gene Wilder was 83; Arnold Palmer was 87; Nancy Reagan was 94.

In previous years, we didn't express quite as much shock over these older deaths of major celebrities. Nobody was up in arms when, in 2014, we lost Lauren Bacall at 89, Sid Caesar at 91, and Mickey Rooney at 93. In 2012, the deaths of Jack Klugman at 90, Ray Bradbury at 91, and Phyllis Diller at 95 didn't set off alarms. But in 2016, even the older deaths felt horrifying because they added to the overall total. It was a total that was unprecedented.

THE COLDER MONTHS ARE HARDER TO LIVE THROUGH

One piece of the puzzle, at least, we could have predicted ahead of time.

Six of the 10 major celebrities who died in Q4 died in December alone. Another six died in the cold months of January and February 2016. That's not too surprising – there's a consistent pattern year to year that tells us more people will die in December, January, and February than in the warmer months. In the full year of 2016, 32 percent of the celebrity deaths – and 38 percent of the major celebrity deaths – occurred in those three months, which make up just 25 percent of the year.

(For contrast, note that in June, July, and August, just five major celebrities died, for 16 percent of the total.)

2016 WAS ROUGH, BUT THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN THAT

The long and short of this year's data is: No, you haven't imagined an increase in celebrity deaths. It's not just a matter of social media amplifying these deaths more than in past years, or of heavy concentrations in a few notably awful weeks. The numbers bear out the theory that 2016 was a bad year for celebrity deaths.

Almost everybody who hears this has two follow-up questions: Why is this happening? And what does the future look like?

Earlier in the year, I was answering the first question with "2016 has been a very weird year so far." That's still true, really. Compared to recent years, 2016 represents a stunning spike in celebrity deaths. It's been an unusual year in other ways as well, from the U.K.’s Brexit vote to a shocking U.S. presidential upset to the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years.

But the death boom looks less like an anomaly and more like a point on a steep demographic curve.

The most reasonable explanation seems to be the one that asks us to look back to the 1950s and '60s when the huge Baby Boomer generation (a) came into being and then (b) began creating idols out of its young musicians and actors in unprecedented numbers. A big generation called for a lot of stars, and television gave it the perfect vehicle for those stars. So the Boomers represent the existence of a larger generational number of celebrities than used to exist, and we pay more attention to them. That means there are more celebrities available to die, and their deaths hit us harder because we're very alert to celebrity news.

The Boomer stars are certainly not very old right now. The youngest are in their 50s, with the oldest just past 70. When Prince died at 57, or Bowie at 69, or Fisher at 60, we all said "too young" – under 70 is certainly younger than most of us want to go. And it's younger than the average age of death. But it's not unfathomably young, especially when you've lived a life that includes substance abuse and other life-shortening factors. Those factors were present in many – though certainly not all – of the lives of the Boomer celebrities who died this year.

2016 isn't the first year to claim Boomer celebrities – they were beginning to go in the 1960s as the "27 Club" was formed, and their deaths in recent years include Lesley Gore in 2015, Robin Williams in 2014, and Annette Funicello in 2013 – but this is a year when they began to fall in greater numbers than ever before.

2016 saw substantially more celebrity deaths than the previous years did, and that sudden spike was weird indeed. We really can't say, from where we stand right now, that 2016 wasn't unusual. The constant barrage of celebrity death news was jarring and unprecedented. But many discussions of the trend have been treating 2016 as an outlier, a freakish statistical blip that was bound to resolve as we turned our calendars to a new January.

2017, WE’RE UNDER NO ILLUSIONS ABOUT YOU

So what will happen in 2017 and beyond? With 2016 behind us, can we stop holding our breath and waiting for shoes to drop? Will January 2017 represent a new beginning, a quiet time in the world of celebrity death?

I hate to break it to you, but that's not likely. A graph of the celebrity death rates throughout the 2010s has a line that goes way, way up in 2016 – but I don't think that line is going to go down in 2017, forming a spike. I think we'll see more of a plateau. Perhaps 2017 won't have the odd concentrations of celebrity deaths that 2016 did, but it's unlikely to revert to the lower levels of the earlier years of the decade. A year that currently feels like a major anomaly will probably, when viewed from 10 or 15 years in the future, look more like the beginning of a generational trend.

As always, I'm no psychic, and this is one situation where I hope I'm wrong.

But let’s say this projection is correct. It poses another question, a more emotional one: Will the celebrity deaths continue to hurt us as badly as they have in 2016, or will we become desensitized to the seemingly endless parade of saddening news alerts?

I don't think we're going to be able to turn off our feelings. Our idols are dying, the women and men who made music and movies and television shows that spoke to our souls and entertained and elevated us, the athletes who inspired us, the politicians who shaped our world. That's always got the potential to feel devastating. Sure, any particular celebrity’s death might affect you, as an individual, more or less – but the end of a life that has meant something to yours, whether you knew them personally or not, is always likely to hurt.

We can't prevent it – even the trending GoFundMe campaign to protect Betty White can't stop the march of time. As much as we dearly love her, White is 94, and like all of our favorite stars who are aging, her eventual death is inevitable. We can't protect them indefinitely. What we can do is enjoy their work while they're still here – and make sure they know how appreciated they are.