6 months ago
Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Prince, and Carrie Fisher are just a few of the litany of celebrity deaths that saddened the world in 2016. And soon after the names started piling up, a chorus of voices began to wonder out loud if last year was the worst year of them all. But was it?
Think about 2014 for a second. That year, the world lost Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple, and Mickey Rooney. These celebrities touched a lot of people, Williams being one of the standouts. Was 2014 somehow less bad than 2016, even though we lost one of the world’s greatest comedians and actors? So as far as parameters go, public outcry isn’t a good one to go by.
Because the notion of celebrity is inherently subjective, many news outlets accumulated different tallies of those celebrities lost in 2016. RealClearLife, for example, erred on the conservative side with 48. The New York Times, on the other hand, added 357 obits to its Notable Deaths section (with 135 making the front page). The BBC published just 49.
So, who’s right? It really all depends on who you ask. Some foreign websites might not have run an obit for Craig Sager, but almost every American news site did. But, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to quantify the perceived phenomenon of unusually high celebrity deaths. One of those people is Linnea Crowther. She investigated the trend in a study for Legacy.com, an obituary writing service that works with publications such as the Times. By her count, more celebrities died in 2016 than in previous years. Compared to an average 59 per year from 2010-15, celebrity deaths increased by 38 percent to 95 deaths last year.
The real reason why those 2016 deaths might’ve felt like such a gut punch: Of the 95 Crowther quoted, a third were considered to be “major celebrities” (there’ve only been 13 on average in previous years). Crowther defines major celebrities as “[people who are] widely known as household names, and their deaths trended strongly on social media.”
Crowther’s study is pretty fascinating; it’s almost an anthropological observation of our celeb-obsessed culture. The study also notes a few key trends, aside from the obvious ones. The first quarter of the year, for instance, was particularly brutal for the music industry since that period had a higher-than-normal concentration of musician deaths. If losing your favorite pop icon wasn’t bad enough, the average age of the deceased celebrities was not only younger than in previous years, but also younger than the average age of death in the country overall.
Crowther points to the larger-than-average Baby Boomer generation—which produced more stars that were idolized by larger crowd of devotees—as a possible explanation for this surge in notable deaths. For this reason, she doesn’t hold out hope for 2017 being a better year for celebrity death totals, but does expect the rate will level off. “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,” Crowther said.