Legacy’s celeb obit expert examines curious numbers in the year’s most famous deaths
By: Linnea Crowther
17 days ago
What did you notice most about celebrity deaths in 2018? Was it the poignant pairing of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, when they died just a few months apart? Was it the loss of one of your idols – maybe theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking or Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin or "maverick" Senator John McCain?
Maybe you noticed the unusually quiet December we had, with only a few notable deaths making the news. Maybe you were struck by the very low number of famous musicians who died in 2018, especially in comparison to the last couple years. Or maybe you were saddened by the comparatively higher number of classic television stars who died.
As senior writer for Legacy.com, I read, write, and think about obituaries for notable people all the time. Whatever you noticed about the past year's celebrity deaths, I had my eye on it too, and I probably tracked it and analyzed it from a statistical perspective. Now that the calendar has turned and 2018 is on the books, I'm looking back at the trends and patterns I found in the year's deaths. Among other things, I've discovered:
* Fate took it easy on major celebrities and musicians, with low numbers of both dying
* The time of year that's usually busy for those of us who write celebrity obituaries was slow, and the time that's usually slow was busy
* Women died younger, on average, than men
* Deaths came in twos, rather than the usual threes
Let’s dig into the numbers to find out what my conclusions were and how I came to them.
TOTAL NUMBERS OF CELEBRITY DEATHS IN 2018
First, the basics. I identified 66 national celebrities who died in 2018. That's a very predictable number based on what I've seen in recent years. The average from the previous eight years was about 64 celebrity deaths per year. No big surprises there in 2018.
Of those 66 celebrities, I tagged 11 as “major” celebrities. That's just 17 percent of the total, and it's low in comparison to recent years. The average from the previous eight years was about 16 major celebrity deaths per year, for an average of about 25 percent of all celebrity deaths. So that's one big takeaway from 2018: an unusually low number of our very favorite, most widely renowned stars died.
Before we get too much farther into this analysis, here's a note on my methodology. My starting point with this project each year is to create a two-tiered list of celebrities who died over the year. I identify all the celebrities who have died, and then I single out the smaller group of major celebrities among them.
It's not easy to create a definitive list of celebrities who died in a year, and it's no easier to tag a percentage of them as major celebrities. That's because celebrity is subjective. We don't all have the same interests and admire the same notable people. The most newsworthy celebrity death of the year for me might have been no more than a blip on your radar, and vice versa.
Legacy featured more than 350 obituaries for notable people in 2018, but obviously, these didn't all make it to my list. That's because many people of note make it to our obituary section without being exactly celebrities. For example, one of the most recent featured obituaries we published was for Richard Overton, the oldest living veteran of World War II. He was a fascinating man and absolutely worthy of a featured obituary on our site – but I wouldn't say he was a nationwide celebrity. He was well known in his hometown of Austin, Texas, and a point of interest to most everyone else once they heard of him, but not widely known outside Austin. So he didn't make the list, awesome though he was.
Then there were folks who died in 2018 who were unquestionably major celebrities. Aretha Franklin was one of them. Her music crossed genre boundaries for decades, topping the charts from the 1960s through the 1980s. People of all ages and walks of life knew who she was and could sing at least a bit of one of her songs. She's instantly recognizable – her face, voice, and name are widely known. She was an obvious choice to include in my list of major celebrities.
Falling in between the two is the collection of people who made it to my list as celebrities, but were not tagged as major celebrities. These are folks who you might or might not recognize by face or name, but they all achieved at least a reasonable amount of fame. Some of us surely followed and loved these celebrities, but they weren't as widely known and revered as the major celebrities. Still, you're likely familiar with their major credits. Examples include Margot Kidder, who starred in the Superman movies of the 1970s and '80s, and Joe Jackson, father and manager of music superstar Michael Jackson.
It's impossible to create a perfect list that everybody will agree on. But I did my best to remain consistent with the criteria I used to fill out the list for this year and for the previous eight years.
THE CALENDAR WAS BACKWARDS THIS YEAR
Those of us who work in this business know that there's a very predictable pattern to the nationwide number of deaths each year. The highest numbers occur in the coldest months, especially December, January, and February. The lowest numbers come in the summer. This is a pattern that plays out year after year without much deviation.
This mostly holds true in celebrity deaths. The first quarter of the year – January through March – has the highest concentration of deaths in the eight previous years I've studied, with an average of 30 percent of the celebrity deaths occurring in that quarter. Things calm down in the second and third quarters – April through September – and pick back up a bit for the final three months of the year in the fourth quarter.
That got somewhat flipped in 2018. The first quarter (Q1) felt so quiet. A handful of minor celebrities died – about 26 percent of the year's total – but only two major celebrities died in Q1. They were Rev. Billy Graham and Stephen Hawking, and while their deaths were newsworthy indeed, they amounted to an unusually small number of big obituaries in Q1. The typical percentage of Q1 major celebrity deaths is about 25 percent, while this year just 18 percent of the major celebrity deaths took place in Q1.
By the beginning of April, I had started wondering if 2018 was going to be the anti-2016. You remember 2016, right? It was the year that broke all the stats on celebrity deaths. Massive numbers of celebrities died in 2016, especially idols of the Baby Boomer generation, and large numbers of them were major celebrities.
As Q2 proceeded, it initially seemed like I was right about the anti-2016. April through June continued to be light on the major celebrity deaths, with just two more – Barbara Bush and Anthony Bourdain. That's another 18 percent of the year's total major celebrity deaths. But when I really dug into the quarter's featured obituaries, I saw that there was a noticeable uptick in the numbers of minor celebrity deaths. Thirty-three percent of the year's celebrity deaths occurred in Q2, compared to a typical average of 27 percent.
Then came Q3, and after a very quiet July, August and September hit us hard. Four major celebrities died in the space of just three weeks: Aretha Franklin, John McCain, Burt Reynolds, and Mac Miller. It added up to an unusual 36 percent of the year's major celebrity deaths, in the quarter that's typically the quietest.
Things calmed back down in Q4, but there were still three major celebrity deaths: Stan Lee, George H.W. Bush, and Penny Marshall. That was 27 percent of the year's total, which is pretty standard in comparison to previous years. For me, the weirdest thing about Q4 was the fact that the last two weeks of the year were so very quiet. I was waiting for a big, tragic announcement in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, a la 2016's awful three-day stretch starting on Christmas Day, when George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds died one after another. But Marshall was the last of 2018's celebrity deaths.
When you look at the three months when mortality typically peaks – December through February – there were only three major celebrity deaths in 2018, 27 percent of the year's total. In contrast, those three months in 2016 saw 38 percent of the year's major celebrity deaths. In 2015, it was 43 percent; in 2014, 46 percent. The upshot: The coldest months of 2018 were unusually kind to major celebrities.
WOMEN AND MEN, OLD AND YOUNG
One stat that stood out in the analysis I did one year ago for 2017 was that the number of notable women who died was very low. Just 14 percent of the celebrity deaths in 2017 were women, compared to a very predictable average of 25 percent in previous years (in most years, the deviation from 25 percent is no more than a percent or two in either direction). I was curious to see what would happen with this stat in 2018.
In fact, we ended the year with women making up 26 percent of the celebrity deaths. It seems like that's a stat you can set your watch by. But I do suspect that in the long term – like over the next 50 years – we'll see that percentage slowly rise.
It's pretty easy to explain the consistently low percentage now, because the celebrities who are getting old and dying now tend to have gained their fame several decades ago. It was a time when it was much easier for men – and harder for women – to get a foot in the doors of fame-making fields like politics, literature, sports, and big business. Today, more and more young women are forcing those doors open and making a name for themselves in traditionally male-dominated fields. As today's younger generations age, we're likely to see the balance of male and female celebrities who died each year even out.
We think of women dying older than men on average, and this holds true with the U.S. national average ages of death. Nationally, life expectancy for women is 81, and for men it's 76. The two are much closer together in my celebrity average from the past eight years – women average 77.9 at death and men 76. But this year, the celebrities who died flipped the usual ratio and men died older, at an average age of 77.9. The female celebrities who died this year averaged 75 years old.
This was not because tragically young deaths of female celebrities dragged down the average. In fact, the opposite is true. Only two celebrities died in their 20s in 2018, and they were both men: Mac Miller and DJ Avicii. A couple of women died in their 40s: Cranberries singer Dolores O'Riordan and actress DuShon Monique Brown. They were balanced out by three who died in their 90s: Barbara Bush, actress Katherine MacGregor, and actress Peggy McCay. The rest of the women clustered around that average age of 75, not deviating too far from it in either direction.
On the flip side, there were twelve men in the 90+ crowd, as well as another seventeen in their 80s, which made for a higher than normal average age of death for male celebrities this year.
Since women make up a lower percentage of the total celebrities in my list than men, their younger age didn't manage to skew the average age of all celebrities on my list substantially lower. In fact, celebrities overall died a little older than average this year. The average age of celebrity death was 77.1, a little up from the average in recent years of 76.3 years old. Major celebrities trended even older, dying at an average age of 78 this year in comparison to the previous years' average of 76.
Only 21 percent of the celebrities who died this year were younger than 70. That seems to be an approximate cutoff age for society declaring a death "too young." In previous years, an average of 29 percent of celebrities died at "too young" ages. And the number of celebrities in this year's list who lived to 90 or older reached an all-time high of 23 percent of the total. That's in comparison to recent years' average of 21 percent.
ACTORS, MUSICIANS, AND WRITERS
For the last couple years, the high number of musicians' deaths was unmissable. In both 2016 and 2017, exactly one third of the celebrity deaths were musicians. That's in a study that includes a lot more than three types of celebrities – there are actors, politicians, athletes, writers, businesspeople, religious leaders, and more.
This year, fate took it easy on musicians. Only 17 percent of the celebrity deaths were musicians. The average for the previous years of the study was 29 percent, so that's notably low.
So who balanced out that small percentage of musicians? Not actors: Thirty-two percent of this year's celebrity deaths were actors, in comparison with the recent average of 36 percent. Rather, writers and politicians are two categories in which more celebrities than average died. Writers – encompassing authors, journalists, columnists, and comic creators – made up 17 percent of this year's total, in comparison to an average of 10 percent in previous years. And politicians were eight percent of this year's celebrities who died, a bit up from the six percent average.
Only a tiny number of athletes died this year – I included just two on my list. Neither was a major celebrity. And they made up just three percent of the year's notable deaths, in comparison to an average of seven percent in previous years.
Writers live the longest on average in my study, and they did so again this year. The writers who died averaged out at 83.3 years old. The average for writers in previous years was 82.2. This year, musicians were the youngest age group, averaging 68.2 (a little below musicians' average of 71.5). Athletes have averaged the youngest over the years – just 68.4 on average in previous years – but this year, with a very small sample size of two, they were the second oldest at 80.
A TRAGIC CONCENTRATION OF DEATHS BY SUICIDE
As I track the year's notable deaths, I also note the cause of death whenever it's available.
There's a pervasive myth that says suicide rates rise around the winter holidays. But it's just not true. The fact is that the suicide rate nationwide is at its highest in spring.
Researchers studying the phenomenon are working on explanations. Their theories include factors like high pollen counts and changing levels of melatonin production, which could have effects on brain chemistry that we just don't understand yet. But we do know it's a predictable trend that more people die by suicide in spring and summer than in winter months.
In my list of celebrity deaths in 2018, I found five celebrities who died by suicide: Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Verne Troyer, Margot Kidder, and Avicii. And all five deaths occurred in Q2 – the spring months of April through June.
This is such a small sample size that it doesn't really prove anything, though it does align with the truth about the suicide rate nationwide. But if there's one thing I'd like you to take away from it, it's that we should do our best to be there to support our loved ones all year round. Check in with friends and family members who have mental health issues whenever you can – don't just save it for the holidays.
DEATHS CAME IN TWOS IN 2018
There's a longstanding trope about deaths coming in threes. Any time two celebrities die, we hold our collective breath and wait for the third. This year, the pattern I saw was not groupings of three but instead, notable duos. The most obvious one is George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. The former first lady died in April, and her husband, the 41st President of the United States, followed her in November.
But other groupings of two just kept standing out, all year long. Some of these folks didn't make it to the list of celebrities for this statistical analysis, but they were all featured in our notable deaths section. Steve Ditko, one of the legendary comic book creators from the golden age of Marvel Comics, died in June. A few months later in November, Stan Lee, the father of Marvel Comics, died. The two had worked together to create the legendary superheroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
In the sports world, Wally Triplett, the first African-American to play in the NFL, died November 8. Exactly one month earlier, George Taliaferro had died – he was the first African-American football player drafted into the NFL, chosen in an earlier round than Triplett in the same year's draft, though he chose to play for the AAFC for a season before joining the NFL.
Two notable animators died: Bud Luckey, the Pixar animator who created Toy Story's Woody in February; and Will Vinton, creator of the California Raisins and the Domino's Pizza Noid, in October. Two retail innovators died: Ingvar Kamprad, founder of furniture giant IKEA, in January, and Charles Lazarus, founder of recently-shuttered Toys "R" Us, in March. Two Apollo astronauts died: John Young, ninth person to walk on the Moon, in January, and Alan Bean, fourth person to walk on the Moon, in May.
And they didn't work together frequently, but Matt "Guitar" Murphy died in June and Aretha Franklin followed in August… and they shared a memorable turn as husband and wife in the 1980 comedy classic "The Blues Brothers." All the notable pairings who died this year probably don't add up to any kind of significant trend worth following in 2019 and beyond, but it was enough of a pattern to catch my eye.
2019 AND BEYOND
What should we expect for celebrity deaths in 2019? This is not something that's very predictable. Some of the oldest major celebrities are still enjoying great health in their 90s, and some of the most newsworthy deaths are young ones we never expected. And the stats don't change hugely from year to year… except when they do. 2016 is case in point for that. 2018 was a more "normal" year for celebrity deaths than that odd outlier, but then again it's hard to say there's a "normal" when it comes to something as very personal and emotional as death.
2019 has already thrown a curve ball our way. As I was getting this analysis ready to publish, we received word of three celebrity deaths. They occurred one after another, all on the same day: pro wrestling announcer "Mean" Gene Okerlund, "Super Dave" actor Bob Einstein, and musician Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille. It's a reminder that a quiet moment in celebrity deaths rarely lasts long - and we never know just what to expect.
One thing I can tell you to expect, though, is that more celebrities will die in 2019. There'll probably be one that really throws you for a loop. There'll probably be another that hits close to home and makes you grieve. And we at Legacy will do our best to honor all those lives and help you remember them.
LIST: MAJOR CELEBRITIES WHO DIED IN 2018
Billy Graham, religious leader, 99, Feb. 21
Stephen Hawking, scientist, 76, Mar. 14
Barbara Bush, former first lady, 92, Apr. 17
Anthony Bourdain, chef and television personality, 61, Jun. 8
Aretha Franklin, musician, 76, Aug. 16
John McCain, senator, 81, Aug. 25
Burt Reynolds, actor, 83, Sep. 6
Mac Miller, musician, 26, Sep. 7
Stan Lee, comic creator, 95, Nov. 12
George H.W. Bush, former president, 94, Nov. 30
Penny Marshall, actress and filmmaker, 75, Dec. 17