I did research on this, you guys. Real, honest research that involved putting together a database. Yes, fine, it was real, honest research on Wikipedia, but so what? If you’ve got a better place to find lists of celebrity deaths going back more than a few years, I’d like to hear it. Just a pure list, too, in chronological order.
So let’s start, then, with our caveats. First, yes, Wikipedia. Second is more complicated. The fact is, I wasn’t just looking at pure lists of deaths. The deaths that have people wailing on Facebook are not those of the eighty-seven-year-old retired Bishop of Lismore. What I was tallying was deaths that I felt had really moved people that were for the most part of people famous in the arts of one sort or another. Yes, some of them were more obscure than others, and some of them, I’d have to identify as “the guy who voiced the animated Robin Hood” or something for you to know who I was talking about. But still, the guy who voiced the animated Robin Hood died this year!
Here’s what I did. I looked at this year, last year, and then two random years in the past. I went to the main page for deaths in whatever year. I only looked from the first of January through April 21. (The day Prince died, specifically.) I noted anyone I thought was of any major emotional significance to a lot of people. Even if they were someone I didn’t much care about. With few exceptions, these were people who were actors or other filmmakers, writers, and musicians.
I counted twenty-eight for 2016. Yeah, some of them, I’d have to look up again, and again, some, I don’t care about myself. But on that list are David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Patty Duke, George Kennedy, Garry Shandling, Harper Lee, Abe Vigoda, Prince, and Vanity. Nancy Reagan and Merle Haggard and Chyna. And even that isn’t listing all the ones where I saw their death and was sad, evne if it was just for a couple of minutes while reading the headlines. By this time last year, we had fourteen, with only Sir Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy being that painful. In 2003, we had nine, including Michael Jeter and Fred Rogers; in 1998, we had seventeen, including Fred Friendly, Jack Lord, and Sonny Bono.
Now, this is a crappy sample size, and I admit it. Four years is not that many, though I think we can set an estimate of “around a dozen or so” for how many major celebrity deaths we should have hit by this time of year. We’re well over double that by my tally, though I also acknowledge that yours or anyone else’s would be different. And of those deaths, a lot have been ones of major emotional significance to people. Almost everyone I know has had at least one celebrity death this year hit them fairly hard; a lot of us have wept.
You should know that I reject out of hand the explanation that more people are famous than used to be true. While that isn’t wrong, that doesn’t explain this particular list. I mean, Abe Vigoda was 94. Doris Roberts was 90. Even Ken Howard was 71. And while Prince was 57, as was Vanity, I think the only person younger than they who made my list was Chyna, at 46, whose career was pretty well over by most people’s standards. This isn’t a wave of internet celebrities; this is people who have been around for a while.
And, yes, the celebrities of my generation’s youth are dying, though I should note that Falco made my 1998 list, if you count “the guy who sang ‘Rock Me Amadeus'” as a celebrity. (I do.) That doesn’t explain why the 2016 list is twice as long as the 2015 list and way, way more emotionally significant. Those are the years that should have the most similarity, and they really don’t. Maybe I should have done 2014, too, just to be sure, but there’s a heck of a difference that can’t be answered by the explanations people have been giving.
So what is the explanation? Heck, I don’t know. Statistical anomaly is all I can come up with. I think this means we’re due for a better year next year, or maybe the second half of this year is going to be a lot lighter on celebrity deaths. Let’s hope so, anyway.