Legacy's obituary expert explains four trends in the year's famous deaths
By: Linnea Crowther
7 months ago
One year ago today, we were looking back on the seriously weird year of 2016 and wondering why so many of our idols died. What about 2017? Well, the past year had its own weirdness, but one of the few things we can always count on in life is death, and that's true for celebrities just like the rest of us.
Lots of celebrities died in 2017, just like they did last year. There was probably at least one that especially stung for each of us. But the year as a whole wasn't as similar to 2016 as I thought it might be when I wrapped up my study of last year's celebrity deaths and attempted to make some predictions about this year.
Here are a few of the things that stood out in 2017:
* The percentage of women celebrities who died in 2017 was weirdly small. So small, in fact, that I kept scouring the list of this year's notable obituaries to figure out if I was missing anybody.
* Like in 2016, a lot of musicians died. And they died young – even younger, on average, than in 2016.
* In 2016, the biggest celebrities we mourned tended to die young. In 2017, we lost celebrities who played major roles in shaping the culture we live in today, from music to feminism to sex.
* Fewer celebrities died overall in 2017 than in 2016. But the percentage of those we tagged as major celebrities was even bigger.
Let's take a look at the numbers.
TOTAL NUMBERS OF CELEBRITY DEATHS IN 2017
I identified 63 celebrities who died in 2017. That's in comparison to 95 in 2016 and to an average of 59 per year from 2010 through 2015. That puts 2017 in line with the years leading up to 2016, and it makes 2016 look like the great big spike on the graph that it felt like at the time.
But when you look at the major celebrities who died, it's 2017 that's the big year. I identified 24 major celebrities who died this year. Sure, that's a smaller number than 2016's 32. But as a percentage of the total number of celebrity deaths, the number looms larger. Thirty-eight percent of the celebrity deaths in 2017 were major celebrities. In 2016, the percentage was 34, and the average in previous years was just 21 percent.
It may be that this category is growing for the same reason we saw such a big number of celebrity deaths last year: the Baby Boomer effect. As this big generation began to come of age in the 1950s and '60s, they had access to media their parents didn't have, and they used that media to create lots of celebrities. They demanded more music, more television shows, more movies, and they followed the stars who created them more closely than their parents and grandparents had followed the stars of their youth.
In other words: There are simply more celebrities available to die than there were 50 years ago, thanks to advances in both media technology and celebrity worship during those 50 years. The same factors that created more celebrities also created more major celebrities, as we have grown to idolize celebrities more than we once did. And the Boomers are in their late 50s through early 70s now, with old age on the horizon, so the celebrities of their generation are beginning to die in noticeable numbers.
Compiling a list of celebrities and deciding which of them counts as a major celebrity isn't easy, because it's always going to be at least a little subjective. Some are no-brainers: There's no way David Bowie was anything but a major celebrity. But sometimes you might disagree about whether someone merited inclusion on my list at all or deserved a bump to major celebrity status. I can't create a perfect list that we'll all agree on, but I did my best to maintain consistency by using the same methodology I used last year.
Legacy published more than 500 obituaries for notable people in 2017, but obviously not all of these were included in this study. Many of the people who find their way to our notable obituaries page are interesting but not nationally known. My analysis here, on the other hands, focuses on people who are widely known, if not by name, at least for their major career credits.
This selective inclusion is how I do my best to be consistent from year to year – Legacy's policies regarding who merits a featured obituary have evolved a bit over the years, so someone who was included in 2017 may not have made the cut had they died in 2010, or vice versa. But the nature of celebrity hasn't changed much, so I went through that list of hundreds of notables and identified two tiers of people.
One was celebrities, people whose major credits are widely known even if they themselves may not be household names. In 2017, this includes people like "Perry Mason" costar Barbara Hale, "The Exorcist" author William Peter Blatty, and Steely Dan cofounder Walter Becker. The other tier is the major celebrities – people who are themselves widely known and whose deaths trended strongly on social media. In 2017, the list of major celebrities includes Mary Tyler Moore, Tom Petty, Hugh Hefner, and 21 more (see the full list at the end of this article). You may not have heard about Becker's death unless you're tuned in to classic rock news, but you likely heard plenty about the major celebrities who died.
THE ARCHITECTS OF OUR CULTURE
When we looked back on 2016, we remembered so many celebrities who died young and unexpectedly. Prince at 57, Bowie at 69, Carrie Fisher at 60, George Michael at 53 – the list goes on, and if there was a theme to that year, it was these young deaths of pop culture icons. In 2017, the theme seems to have been cultural influencers – and for the most part, they did not die particularly young. Take a look at the biggest of the big names on the list of 2017 celebrity deaths:
* Hugh Hefner – as founder of Playboy, he profoundly influenced the way our culture thinks about sex, for better or for worse.
* Mary Tyler Moore – her self-titled sitcom gave us a model for the career girl who would come to change the way young envisioned their lives in the 1970s and beyond.
I could go on and on with these cultural influencers who died in 2017. Roger Moore showed us a new way to be suave when he took over the character of James Bond from Sean Connery. Adam West was a very different kind of hero, a mild and friendly Batman who introduced camp to the mainstream. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, Charles Manson's horrific real-life murders were often cited as marking the end of the idealistic '60s.
Though they're from a variety of fields and genres within those fields, there's a common thread that unites these cultural figures: they all died at advanced ages. Not a single one of the above stars died younger than the U.S. average age of death (roughly 79). In fact, though some of this year's major celebrity deaths were young indeed (Chris Cornell at 52, Chester Bennington at 41), the average age of death among the major celebrities who died in 2017 was an unusually high 84.57.
That's in contrast to the average age across the broader list of celebrities, 76.17, which is two years older than last year's average (74.17) even though it's still younger than the U.S. average. And when we look at the average age of major celebrities in the past years of the study I've been doing (2010 – present), this year skews seriously old. In 2016, major celebrities averaged 78.71 at death (which feels high when you think of Bowie, Prince, et al, but they were balanced by older luminaries including Nancy Reagan and Arnold Palmer). In the six years prior to 2016? The average age of major celebrity deaths was just 74.11. That's more than a 10-year difference from this year's 84.57.
The big, big stars who died this year were people who had plenty of time to make an indelible mark on society. Almost 85 years, on average.
BUT THE MUSICIANS...
In contrast, the musicians who died this year – and there were a fair number of them, 32 percent of the total list of celebrities – died weirdly young on average. There were a few musicians who died older than the U.S. average – besides Domino and Berry, there's Glen Campbell at 81 and Mel Tillis at 85. But the average age of the musicians on my list who died in 2017 was just 66.47. In comparison, all the non-musicians on the 2017 list averaged out at 80.12 – that's more than 17 percent higher than the musicians' average age.
It's not highly unusual for musicians to die young. You probably could have guessed this based on anecdotal evidence as well as on what we saw last year, when the musicians died at an average age of 70. My research bears out two things: One, yes, musicians do die young, at an average of 71.52 over the past eight years (compared to 77.49 for all non-musician celebrities). And two, musicians died REALLY young this year. In no other year of my study was the difference between musicians and non-musicians as stark as it was this year.
It's no secret that there are lifestyle issues at play with some of the musicians who die young. Substance abuse isn't uncommon in the world of popular music, and that can shorten life spans or even directly cause deaths in some cases. But it's not the sole factor to blame in this year's young deaths. Bennington and Cornell both died by suicide. Country music star Troy Gentry was killed in a helicopter crash at 50. And Prodigy, the rapper who was, at 42, the second youngest musician to die this year, died of complications of sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease. Their tragic fates are a reminder not to generalize or assume we know what's to blame for a too-young death in the music world.
What group of celebrities lives the longest? According to my study, the clear answer is authors and journalists. This year, their average age of death was a venerable 87.75. The average over eight years for authors and journalists is 82.12, the oldest of all the categories, so if you're considering a career change for the sake of your longevity, there's an idea for you.
You might have anticipated that the longest-lived group of celebrities would be women. It's true that women on average live longer than men, and that is reflected in my research, though the difference isn't particularly big. On average over eight years, female celebrities have died at 78.05 and male celebrities at 76.05. In 2017, the difference was a bit bigger – 80.67 for women and 75.42 for men. But that was based on a super small sample size for women…
WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN?
As the end of the year approached, I took a look at the running list I was keeping of celebrity deaths and noticed one really weird trend. It was so weird, in fact, that it led me to a research detour of several hours as I scoured lists of 2017 celebrity deaths to make sure I wasn't missing anybody.
That trend is that there were SO FEW famous women who died this year. It's such an oddly low number that I was convinced I was wrong. But no, it's true, and no amount of intense searching could change it: a paltry fourteen percent of celebrity deaths this year were women.
It's worth noting that though women make up roughly 50 percent of the world's population, they're nowhere near half of the celebrity deaths in the other years I studied. Across the board in the seven years before 2017, 24 to 26 percent of the celebrity deaths were women – with the exception of one year (2013) when women made up 39 percent. That's a pretty similar deviation from the average as this year's 14 percent, just in the opposite direction.
I can easily explain the standard 25 percent. The celebrities who are dying in their 70s, 80s, and 90s came of age and came to prominence in a world that was different from today's. Fifty years ago, women still fought for entry into the male-dominated worlds of politics, sports, and business. Even entertainment and literature, while they had a place for women, had a bigger place for men (consider, for example, how few women are among the stars of classic rock music or the authors of the 20th-century literary canon).
Those stars of 50 years ago are prominent among the celebrities dying today, and there are simply more men in that group of aging celebrities than there are women. If we jump forward 50 years, we will probably see a much smaller gender divide in the celebrity deaths of 2067. Young women today are finding more doors open to them in music, literature, politics, and beyond than their mothers and grandmothers did.
But why did so few female celebrities – barely half the usual average – die in 2017? I don't have as obvious an answer for this year's 14 percent figure. Sometimes statistics that feel predictable produce a weird blip, and I suspect that's all that's behind this number. Now, in the unlikely event that we see the trend continue for the next few years, we will have some head-scratching to do as we figure out what's keeping all the famous women alive. But for now, I feel comfortable calling this a coincidence.
2018 AND BEYOND
What should we expect in 2018? I wish I could say I knew, but I'm no psychic – and though death is inevitable for all of us, it's notoriously hard to predict. While advancing age certainly corresponds to an increasing mortality rate, that's only the broad trend. Plenty of individuals buck the statistical curve – some of the best loved celebrities in America are currently between 95 and 101 years old.
So I can't really give you any names to watch for in 2018, but I can tell you this: Celebrities will die. A fair percentage of them – probably in the neighborhood of 30-40 percent – will be major celebrities. There'll probably be one celebrity death that hits you kind of hard, because against all reason, we really do have feelings for these people whom we don't personally know, and we care about their well-being. You can't keep your favorite stars alive, though – about the best you can do is appreciate them while they're here.
LIST: Major celebrities who died in 2017
Mary Tyler Moore, actor, 80
Bill Paxton, actor, 61
Joseph Wapner, judge, 97
Chuck Berry, musician, 90
Don Rickles, comedian, 90
Charlie Murphy, comedian, 57
Gregg Allman, musician, 69
Chris Cornell, musician, 52
Roger Moore, actor, 89
Adam West, actor, 88
Martin Landau, actor, 89
Chester Bennington, musician, 41
Sam Shepard, actor, 73
Glen Campbell, musician, 81
Dick Gregory, comedian, 84
Jerry Lewis, comedian, 91
Hugh Hefner, media mogul, 91
Monty Hall, television host, 96
Tom Petty, musician, 66
Fats Domino, musician, 89
Robert Guillaume, actor, 89
Della Reese, actor, 86
Charles Manson, criminal, 83
David Cassidy, musician and actor, 67
Jim Nabors, actor, 87