2020 was a year when death was frequently on our minds and in the news.
In a normal year, of course, death is often important news, whether it’s a celebrity death that dominates headlines or a loved one’s passing that upends our lives. But in 2020, for many of us, both were all too frequent. As the COVID-19 pandemic claimed the lives of more than 350,000 Americans, that terrible number included both beloved celebrities and family and friends close to our own hearts.
Here at Legacy, I write obituaries for notable people in the news who have died, and this year I was often asked if my job was different than usual, or harder, or busier. The truth was that it did often feel like a busy year, especially in the spring, but it wasn’t until we officially closed the book on 2020 that I could really say just how much different 2020 was than a more typical year.
Now that it’s 2021 – and we’re starting to feel some hope that this pandemic may one day end – I looked back on 2020 and crunched the numbers of notable obituaries written by our news team. Before I get into details, here’s a quick overview of what I found:
- We published 30% more notable obituaries in 2020 than in 2019.
- There was a heartbreaking spike in notable deaths in April.
- More middle-aged celebrities died in 2020 than in a typical year.
About that first statistic: We published 626 obituaries for newsmakers who died in 2020. That’s an average of about 52 obituaries per month, and it’s a big jump over 2019. In 2019, we published 438 news obituaries, for an average of 36.5 obituaries per month. It’s no surprise, then, that 2020 felt like a busy year.
(Note: This is a much smaller and more specific sample, of course, than the total number of obituaries published on Legacy via our local newspaper partners by the hundreds of thousands of families in communities everywhere. The difference is, those local family obituaries do not all necessarily include all the data points we wanted to look at, including the age and profession of people who died, while our editorially reported news obituaries do. So while the data on famous people is much smaller, it is also fully complete within itself, so our statistics can be more certain.)
Unusual busy periods
The busiest month, and one when it felt like our team was constantly stretched thin as we wrote obituary after obituary for notable people, was April. We published a shocking 90 notable obituaries in April. April contains just 8.2% of the days in the year, but we published 14.4% of the year’s obituaries in those 30 days. Those 90 obituaries equal almost three times the 34 obituaries we published in April 2019, but it’s not just the year-over-year comparison that makes that 90 seem so striking.
During the rest of 2020, we published anywhere from 33 (in November) to 65 (in July) notable obituaries per month. July was obviously a busy month, much busier than July 2019, when we published 38 notable obituaries, but it pales in comparison to that April number.
This April spike is very unusual. Normally, as the spring’s warmer temperatures begin, April sees a dip in the country’s death rate. There’s a very consistent trend in the U.S.: the death rate is highest in January, drops in spring and summer, and begins to rise again in the last months of the year. It forms a very predictable U-shaped graph that we see over and over.
Here at Legacy’s news desk, we don’t usually create quite as perfect a U-shaped graph. We are working with a small sample size – several hundred deaths rather than the millions that happen across the U.S. each year. And small samples tend not to follow predictable trends quite as well as larger ones.
One trend that is fairly consistent here at Legacy is that we do tend to publish more notable deaths in the coldest months – January, February, and December – than we do in the rest of the year. That was true in 2019, when we published 29.5% of the year’s notable obituaries during those three months. But it was upended in 2020, when only 20% of our notable obituaries were published in those three months. Spring of 2020 was when notable deaths peaked, and the three-month period with the highest total was Q2, April through June. We published 32.6% of the year’s notable obituaries then.
In any other year, we would be scratching our heads about that Q2 bump – and especially about the shocking April spike in notable deaths. But in 2020, April marked the early days of the pandemic’s death toll, when it wreaked havoc on several large cities but hadn’t yet become widespread across the U.S. It was a time when the average American might not yet know anyone personally who died of COVID-19, but they probably knew of a celebrity who did.
In fact, only about one-third of the obituaries we published in April were for people whose confirmed cause of death was COVID-19. But as hospitals in large cities like New York were overwhelmed and some people delayed seeking medical care for fear of exposure to the virus, there was a marked increase in deaths of all causes in some areas of the country.
What we ended up with in 2020 was an unusually uneven distribution of notable obituaries here at Legacy: It looks more like a frown than the letter U. 21.8% of the notable deaths came in Q1, January through March. Again, 32.6% came in Q2, while Q3 (July through September) accounts for 27% and the lowest percentage was in Q4 (October through December) with 18.1%.
More middle-aged deaths than usual
When I crunched the numbers of this year’s celebrity deaths, I went deeper than just considering how many obituaries we published and when. I looked at other factors as well, including age, gender, and occupation.
The U.S. life expectancy is currently 78.7 years. We have typically found that the average age of death for celebrities is a little lower than the U.S. life expectancy, and that held true this year as well. The average age of death (calculated using the mean) for notables in 2020 was 74.62. Interestingly, both the U.S. life expectancy and Legacy’s average age of death for celebrities went up this year. The previously calculated U.S. life expectancy was 78.54, and our 2019 average age of notable deaths was 73.64.
Women have a slightly higher life expectancy in the U.S. than men. Currently, the U.S. life expectancy for men is 76.1 and for women is 81.1. That’s not how it worked out for notable people this year, though: in the obituaries we published, the men averaged 74.87 years old, while the women averaged 74.16. This is consistent with 2019 – in fact, the gap was bigger then, with men averaging 74.14 years old and women averaging 71.95.
I also took a look at what percentage of our notable deaths were from certain age groups. One of those groups was 90 and older – an age at which we typically say a person has lived a very long, full life. I suspected this percentage might be high this year, because I perceived that we had written a lot of obituaries in 2020 for stars who lived very long and full lives indeed – like Kirk Douglas at 103 and Olivia de Havilland at 104.
In fact, 23.8% of the notable obituaries we published this year were for people 90 and older. That’s a drop from 2019, when 26% of the notable obituaries came from that venerable age group.
With that hypothesis disproven, I remembered that it really seemed like we published so many obituaries in 2020 for notable people who were gone too soon. This included several who died as heartbreakingly young as 13 in the case of Charlotte Figi and 14 in the case of Ben Watkins, but also what felt like so many Millennials and Gen Xers – Naya Rivera at 33, Nick Cordero at 41, Grant Imahara at 49, and many more. Maybe I would find an unusually large percentage from that too-young age group.
So I checked on how many notable people who died in 2020 were from Gen X or younger – the people who were born in 1965 or later. Again, my hypothesis was wrong: In 2020, 16% of our notable obituaries were for Gen X or younger, compared to 21.2% in 2019. When I zoomed in a little further to exclude Gen X and just look at Millennials and younger (born in 1981 or later), I was still wrong! In 2020, only 9.4% of our obituaries were for Millennials and younger, while 12% of our 2019 obituaries were.
What that leaves us with is an exceptionally large percentage of middle-aged people and younger seniors who died in 2020. That percentage – those who died between the ages of 56 and 89 – was 60.23% in 2020. That’s a clear majority, and it’s substantially higher than in 2019, when just 52.74% of the notable deaths were between the ages of 55 and 89. (The lower end of the age range is different in 2019 because I used a generation as a cutoff, rather than a fixed age – so it’s those born in 1964 or earlier).
It seems my sense that we wrote a lot of obituaries for very old and very young people was only right in that we wrote a lot of obituaries for all ages. We certainly did write more obituaries in total for those age groups in 2020 than in 2019, even though the percentages weren’t higher.
2020 deaths by category
Another way to assess the notable people who died in 2020 is to break them down by category. I looked at numbers of notable obituaries from these categories: musicians, actors, athletes, politicians, writers, businesspeople, reality stars, and activists. These categories don’t represent every single one of the notables who died in 2020, but they’re the largest groups.
We noticed fairly early in the pandemic that it seemed like the virus was taking so many beloved musicians – Ellis Marsalis, Charley Pride, and John Prine were just a few of the many musicians who died of COVID-19 in 2020. And indeed, more musicians died in 2020, of all causes, than any other category. Of the 626 notable obituaries we published in 2020, 139 were musicians. That’s 22.2% of the total, a big jump from 2019’s 17.8%.
We wrote more obituaries for athletes in 2020, too: 115, adding up to 18.4% of the year’s total and again more than in 2019, when 17.8% of our obituaries were for athletes. But there was a small drop in obituaries for actors; we published 105 in 2020, for a percentage of 16.8%, compared to 2019 when 18.7% of our obituaries were for actors.
The other categories were fairly small – each of those categories tends to make up only three to four percent of our total each year, and that held true again in 2020. But I keep track of them not just to compare totals, but also to look at the average age of death in each category.
We often think of musicians as more likely to die young. The idea of the “27 Club” – the many sad stories of musicians who died at age 27 – still looms large over the profession. And in past years, I’ve certainly seen the average age of death for musicians skew noticeably lower than the average, typically coming in somewhere below age 70. That was true in 2019, when the average age of death for musicians in our notable obituaries was 68.78.
In 2020, the average age of death for musicians was slightly higher than usual – it came out to 70.06. And though that isn’t a big jump from the previous year, it reminds us of the impressively advanced ages at which some notable musicians died in 2020: Little Richard at 87, Tommy DeVito of the Four Seasons at 92, Vera Lynn at 103.
Despite those outlying older deaths, musicians as a group in 2020 did die younger than the U.S. average age of death and younger than the overall average age of our notable deaths. Who else died younger than average this year? Actors and athletes died just a little bit lower than the overall average age of 74.62 – actors at 73.99 and athletes at 73.54. But the truly tragic statistic is the average age of death of reality stars who died in 2020.
We published obituaries for 25 reality stars this year, including those known for reality TV shows as well as online platforms like YouTube and TikTok. Their average age of death was a stunning 41.32. In the years I’ve been working on this annual stats check, I’ve never seen such a low age of death for a category. I would have said last year’s average age of death for reality stars was tragically low at 51.94 – and it was! But at more than 10 years higher than this year’s average, it seems practically elderly.
Which categories come in higher than the average age of death? Activists ran a little higher than average at 75.18. Some activists did die fairly young this year, but we’re also losing many greats of the Civil Rights Movement at advanced ages these days, including C.T. Vivian at 95 and Rev. Joseph Lowery at 98. Writers live a little longer – they averaged 79.35 years old in 2020. And businesspeople live longer still, averaging 81.9 in 2020.
If you really want to live to a ripe old age, which profession should you enter? In 2020, the answer looks like politics. We published 21 obituaries for politicians, and they averaged 83.1 years old at the times of their deaths.
Women vs. men
One statistic I’ve kept a close eye on over the years is what percentage of the obituaries we publish are for women. Why am I watching it? Because I’m waiting to see it budge.
I’ve looked at Legacy’s notable obituaries dating back more than 10 years now, and each year, almost invariably, roughly 25% of the obituaries we publish have been for women. In 2019, it was 26.94. In 2020? 26.52.
This is a statistic that’s easy to explain, and the explanation is not that we skip some of the notable women on our obituary pages.
The vast majority of obituaries we publish are for older people – remember, 84% of 2020 notable obituaries were for people from the Baby Boomer generation and older. Almost a quarter were for the very old, people 90 and up. And generally, when we publish an obituary for an older famous person, they didn’t come by their fame recently – they began being famous many years ago, perhaps as far back as the 1940s or 1950s.
In those days, there were simply more opportunities for men to find widespread national fame than women. Look at music charts from the early rock-n-roll and classic rock eras – there are some women, but far more men. Look at midcentury literature – again, more men than women found great fame as writers in those days. Acting held more equal opportunities for women… but fame in the sports world skewed strongly toward men. Politics was largely a man’s game before the later 20th century, as well.
So back in the 1940s and 1950s, even the 1960s and 1970s, when people who are now senior citizens were young, there were more men becoming famous than women. Therefore, now that these generations are dying in large numbers, there are more famous men dying than famous women.
The reason I’m expecting this statistic to eventually budge is that opportunities for women have expanded greatly in the last 50 years. Today, more women are publishing novels and hitting the tops of the music charts than ever before. There are new opportunities for young women in professional sports, and record-smashing numbers of women have been elected to public office in recent years.
Many of the women who are famous today are quite young indeed – but 60 or 70 years from now, when Gen Z and the younger Millennials are as old as those who were famous in the midcentury period are today, I suspect we’ll see a better balance of obituaries for notable women vs. men.
Just when will we see that 25% statistic start to inch toward the center? I checked on the balance of younger men and women who died in 2020, to see if it might yield an answer. 100 of the obituaries we published in 2020 were for Gen Xers and younger, who are no more than 55 years old. And 33% of those obituaries are for women. It’s a nudge in the right direction.
If I’m still writing obituaries 20 years from now, I suspect that by then my annual analysis will show that we’re a little ways down the road to better gender parity in celebrity obituaries. I doubt we’ll see a 50/50 split in such a short time, but perhaps we’ll be nearing that 33% share for women in all notable obituaries published, with a closer to even split in obituaries for younger generations.
No predictions for 2021
If anyone had asked me one year ago today what I thought 2020 would look like in the world of celebrity obituaries, I hope I would have declined to answer. If I had answered, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten it right. There are two reasons for that: One is that at that early date in 2020, the pandemic was barely on my radar – I certainly had no concept of what it would become and how it would affect the U.S. death rate.
The other reason is that although broad trends around death are pretty consistent – that’s why we see that U-shaped curve every year representing U.S. death rates by month – individual deaths are notoriously hard to predict. Of the 626 notable people whose obituaries we published in 2020, there were only a few whose deaths I saw coming due to news of their terminal illnesses. Some of the rest were total surprises. Others were people who I knew to be getting on in years, but none of us can say if any individual will die at 85 or 95 or 105.
So I won’t make a prediction for 2021 in celebrity deaths. I will say, though, that my most fervent hope is that some day in 2021, we’ll write our last obituary with COVID-19 as the cause of death.