We broke down the numbers to find out if more celebrities really are dying this year (or if it just seems that way).
By: Linnea Crowther
2 years ago
Linnea Crowther writes celebrity obituaries for Legacy.com, the global leader in online obituaries. After seeing dozens of Facebook posts asking why so many celebrities are dying all of a sudden, she set out to determine whether 2016 really is "the year of the celebrity death."
You've probably heard people talking about it. Maybe you've even asked the question yourself: Why are so many celebrities dying this year?
After Prince's recent and shocking death, people are even more convinced that 2016 is a bad year for celebrities.
Is 2016 the Year of the Celebrity Death?
It all started with David Bowie, who died Jan. 10 at 69. His death came as a total surprise to most people – he didn't go public with his cancer diagnosis. Fans who had been anticipating his new album, released just two days before his death, pivoted painfully from excitement to grief.
Four days after that, actor Alan Rickman died, also 69, and we reacted with teary postings of "Always" memes (echoing his character's moving quote from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"). Glenn Frey of the Eagles died four days after that; he was 67. Abe Vigoda died a week later.
Peppered among the big-name deaths were lots of slightly smaller ones – people we didn't necessarily know by name, but whose work we recognized when they started trending on Facebook. Dale Griffin, who played drums for Bowie-adjacent band Mott the Hoople. Paul Kantner, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane. Maurice White, who founded Earth, Wind & Fire.
By the end of March, when we heard of the deaths of rapper Phife Dawg, comedian Garry Shandling, and actress Patty Duke in quick succession, it seemed clear: 2016 had become the year when all the celebrities died.
But is that true? Are more stars dying this year than do in most years, or does it just seem that way? That's what I decided to find out. I turned to Legacy's obituary database for answers, comparing the first quarter of 2016 to other recent years (dating back to 2010).
Before I started my research, I thought the answer to the question, "Are more celebrities dying this year?" was going to be "No, it just seems that way." I thought the perception of more celebrity deaths might be tied to a higher number of big names in the obit section, or to the fact that the celebrities dying were fairly young, making their deaths feel more shocking, or perhaps to the fact that the deaths seemed to be oddly concentrated in the music world.
It turned out I was both wrong and right. I was incorrect in thinking that there hasn't been a spike in celebrity deaths this year: in fact, more celebrities have died in the first quarter of 2016 (Q1 2016) than in the first quarter of any of the six previous years. Lots more. Almost twice as many as the average.
I was right, however, that there are factors contributing to a perception of increased celebrity deaths. There has been an unusual abundance of big, noticeable names in the obituary pages – more than in an average quarter. Further, a higher-than-average percentage of the Q1 2016 celebrity deaths were musicians, which made people say, week after week, that "This is a sad year for music." And finally, the celebrities dying this year did trend younger than in a typical year.
So yes, things are a bit unusual in 2016. Read on to find out how I parsed the data and drew these conclusions.
Here's what I learned and how I learned it. I had to start by determining whom we were going to consider a celebrity for this study. I decided on anyone who is reasonably well-known by name or face – Bowie, for example – and anyone who, though the average person may not know their name or face, had an important credit that would be well-known. That would include somebody like Kantner – most people would know Jefferson Airplane, even if they didn't know his name. But I excluded people like Jon Bunch, who merited placement in Legacy's Notable Deaths section as the lead singer of 1990s emo band Sense Field, yet didn't make it to my list because his band is not on the radar of the average American. I also didn't include anyone who became famous as a result of their death (like Trayvon Martin). Though his death was huge news, he wasn't a celebrity in the traditional sense.
The lists I compiled were a little subjective, to be sure. There's no truly objective way to rank people as really famous or pretty famous vs. just a little noteworthy. But what I strove to do was to be as consistent as possible as I looked at the people who have died over the past seven years.
Once I had my lists, dating back to 2010, I started looking at some specifics. I noted when each person died so I could break out the Q1 deaths for each year – because mortality rates follow seasonal patterns, and the number of deaths in a typical Q3 might be very different from the number in a typical Q1. I noted the field of each person because I had a hunch that the percentage of musicians in the obit pages was higher than normal this year. I noted each person's age at the time of their death. And I highlighted the people I perceived as the biggest stars – again, subjective, but with a goal of consistency.
In a recent article, the BBC analyzed the high rate of 2016 celebrity deaths and attributed it, in part, to the fact that, "There are ... more famous people than there used to be." Obituary writer Nick Serpell continued, "In my father or grandfather's generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television." That's true; the number of people we would consider celebrities in 2016 is much higher than that number was in, say, 1946. Television and the Internet have made household-name status more accessible to a greater number of people.
But just as we did, the BBC looked at recent years for their article, focusing on 2012-2016 rather than making comparisons with decades past. We backed up just a bit farther than they did, looking at 2010-2016. The contemporary cult of celebrity was firmly in place by 2010, a year when the Internet was not so different from what it is today. The nature of celebrity has changed a lot over 70 years, but not so much over seven. A news organization like the BBC or Legacy might change its obituary-page policies from year to year, publishing more obituaries for less-famous people in one year and fewer in another, but I strove to correct for that variation by choosing only the most notable people who died in those seven years, rather than surveying every single person in our database of notable obituaries.
My first finding: In Q1 2016, ending March 31, the number of "very famous" and "pretty famous" people who died was 32. That's an impressive number that seems even more impressive when you learn that the average number of comparable Q1 deaths in 2010-2015 was 17.3. Almost twice as many celebrities died in Q1 2016 than in an average Q1.
When I broke out the truly major celebrities who died in Q1 2016, I came up with nine: Bowie, Rickman, Frey, Vigoda, Antonin Scalia, Harper Lee, Nancy Reagan, Shandling, and Duke. Your mileage may vary as to whether you consider each of these people a truly major celebrity, but they trended harder on social media than any others this year, and that helped give them "major" status for this study. Nine out of 32 total means that 28 percent of the Q1 2016 celebrity deaths were major celebrities.
"Truly major celebrities" is the one variable that's more all-over-the-place than any other; in some years, there were just a couple of major deaths in Q1, and then there's a year like 2012, when Q1 saw the deaths of Whitney Houston, Etta James, Davy Jones, Don Cornelius, and Joe Paterno, truly major names that comprised 38 percent of the 13 celebrity deaths in the quarter. But the average percentage of major deaths for Q1 over the six years was 19 percent – that's substantially lower than the 2016 28 percent. So, yes: If it's seemed as if a higher percentage of major celebrities have been dying this year than in an average year, that's because it's true.
A Concentration in the Music World
I panned back out to examine another possibility – that it's seemed as if there have been more celebrity deaths in 2016 because so many of the deaths have been focused in the music world. I looked back to my full list, including "pretty famous" celebrities along with the truly major ones, and counted the number of celebrities associated with the music world who died in Q1 2016. That includes musicians like Bowie and Frey, but it also brings in nonmusicians who are associated with music – such as producer Sir George Martin, who helped shape the sound of the Beatles as he worked with them from their early years. Of the 32 celebrities who died in Q1 2016, 43.8 percent made their livings in the music world. In contrast, the average percentage of musician deaths for the previous six years is just 27.3 percent. Substantially more notable musicians have died in 2016 in comparison to other professions.
Is Age a Factor in Perception?
It seems that every time another musician dies, we hear people murmuring "Too young." But in fact, 2016's celebrity deaths have not been skewing remarkably young, as in some previous years. The lowest age on this year's Q1 list is 40 – that's how old Grammy-nominated country singer Joey Feek was when she died of cancer in March. In contrast, some of the major deaths of the past six years include Cory Monteith of "Glee" fame at 31 in 2013; singer Amy Winehouse at 27 in 2011; and Whitney Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, at 22 in 2015.
Those extremely young deaths bring down the average age of death in a year by quite a bit. In Q1 2016, there aren't any extremely young deaths affecting that average so drastically – only four of the deceased were in their 40s while one was 57. The rest were 66 and older.
But while celebrities may not be dying at shockingly young ages in 2016, something is noticeable about their ages. The average age of the Q1 2016 deaths was 73.5 – lower than any of the previous six years, which top out in 2014 with an average of 79.4 (the average over the years was 76.8). The average age of celebrity death in Q1 2016 was 3.3 years younger than the average for the previous years, and that's without a single 2016 death under age 40 to drastically skew the results (all but two of the other years had at least one under-40 death to pull the average down).
What we saw in Q1 2016 that led to that lower-than-normal average age of celebrity deaths was a rash of 60-something deaths. Bowie, Rickman, Frey, Shandling, and Duke were all between 66 and 69 when they died. So were Griffin, Sha Na Na vocalist Lennie Baker, and "L.A. Law" star Larry Drake. The late 60s isn't an incredibly young age to die, but it's substantially younger than the U.S. average age of death, which is 79.7 (in Bowie's and Rickman's native England, it's even higher, at 81.3).
When someone dies in their 60s, it most certainly qualifies as "too young to go," and we notice it. We have been seeing it this year, remarking on it, and wondering which other beloved celebrities in their 60s need to be wrapped gently in Bubble Wrap and taken good care of so they'll stick around for many years to come.
The BBC also noticed this trend of 60-something deaths as they discussed what's going on in 2016. They declared that we can chalk up the abundance of 2016 celebrity deaths to the aging of the baby-boom generation. I'd argue that a high concentration of boomer deaths is something we can anticipate getting started in a decade or so, but it's not a reasonable explanation for what's happening right now, in 2016. Boomers were born in the postwar period spanning roughly 1946 through 1964. These people are 70 at the very oldest; some are as young as 52. Boomers aren't particularly old, and they aren't dying en masse in 2016. Look at any boomer-related trend piece and it'll tell you that what they're doing is wondering if they should retire yet when they still feel so vital and active, or if they should channel that energy into following a dream and starting their own businesses. But they're not, for the most part, dying. The boomers who are dying – Bowie, Rickman, even Prince, who was born right in the middle of the generation – are dying substantially younger than most of their peers.
Looking Forward: Will the Death Rate Fall?
What will the rest of 2016 look like? Do we need to be worried for the 60-something celebs we love? It's tempting to find hope in the fact that we are exiting the part of the year when death rates are at their highest. More people die in the winter months than in summer and spring, and year after year, we see the overall mortality rate begin to trend downward in March, not to rise again until October or November.
Theoretically, we should see the celebrity death rate slow down this spring, too. If the reliable death rate trend were to play out as usual this year, there would be only a handful of new additions to the list over the next six months or so. But so far, that's not what's happening.
Q1 ended March 31, and that's the last date included in the numbers you'll read above. But the celebrity world barely got a break before the Q2 deaths began with the April 6 death of outlaw country music icon Merle Haggard. After a smattering of second-tier but still notable deaths – reality TV star Daisy Lewellyn, radio talk show host Doug Banks, Bowie drummer Dennis Davis – we were hit with another shocking rash of deaths. Doris Roberts, star of the hit TV sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," died April 17. And April 21, we received word first that World Wrestling Entertainment wrestling star Chyna had died at 45, then, stunningly, news of pop superstar Prince's death at 57. This is no slowdown.
There's an instinct in us to try to make sense of the unusual number of deaths this year, to look for a connecting thread that explains what's going on. That's the one thing I haven't been able to find as I researched this phenomenon. The BBC offered explanations for the trend, but I disagree with the logic that brought them to their conclusions.
The causes of death for this year's late stars don't follow any strange patterns – as in any other year, there are deaths from cancer, heart attacks, suicide, old age, a wide variety of causes. Some have died even as they continue their prolific careers while others were many years past their last credits. The average age does skew young, but the individual ages of death are all over the place, from Feek dying at 40 to Vigoda, Reagan, and actor James Noble all dying at 94, with wide representation at points in between. It's not just 60-somethings dying, not just baby boomer icons, not just the young, not just the old.
As satisfying as it would be to be able to draw a tidy conclusion here, I don't think there's one to be drawn. More celebrities are dying in 2016, and maybe the only reason for that is the disappointingly vague "because all celebrities die eventually." This just happens to be a period of concentration for these deaths. Maybe it's going to slow down as spring continues. But in case it doesn't … just as we’re encouraged to send our loved ones flowers while they are still alive, maybe now is the time to send those fan letters you've been thinking about writing.
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