I didn’t finish doing my research, because yesterday, my computer stopped taking input from my keyboard for a while and that’ll screw up your note-taking. (I’m saving up for a new one and might actually manage it this month, but saving when you’re on disability is slow going.) So bear in mind that I’ve only done half the number-crunching I intended to do here. But the short version is that, although 2016 wasn’t as much of an outlier by the end of the year as it started, we are all still completely justified for feeling as though it was.
The easiest but least helpful way to determine how many notable deaths there are in a year is to go to Wikipedia and simply add up the number per month on the page about notable deaths. I mean, that’s a fast way to do it, but there’s a lot missing in it. Namely that vast, vast quantities of the people on any given Wikipedia page are not people much of anyone has heard of. I’m sure they’re prominent in their fields, but if you posted their names as someone who died on your Facebook page, everyone would assume it was your uncle or something. Still, looking at it in simple numbers, Wikipedia lists 6649 deaths in 2016 to 6330 in 2015. That’s not an enormous gap. (I didn’t get to the other two years, because again, computer.) Probably it’ll fit under statistical noise if nothing else.
Further, the average age on the two pages I finished aren’t substantially different. For 2016, the average age at death was 80.45. For 2015, it was 79.75. Those are both over the average US life expectancy, though of course that gets into tricky issues like adult life expectancy, which is not exactly the same thing. Still, within a year of eighty is not young, though it’s not an age we can draw any specific information from, either. So you’d get an Anton Yelchin at 27, but then you’d also get Lupita Tovar and Cyrus Wong, both of whom were 106.
Possibly harder to justify as mere statistical noise, and this is where the failure of my computer didn’t help, is the list I put together out of the larger list. Now, obviously, my own list is considerably more arbitrary than the full Wikipedia one. For 2016, for example, I chose to include the creators of both the Big Mac and General Tso’s Chicken but not the red Solo cup, who also apparently died last year. I deliberately chose not to include the inventor of the butterfly vibrator or a man who helped eradicate smallpox, nor did I include the four Tuskegee Airmen who died in 2016 or the one who died in 2015. So you can certainly argue with whom I chose and why, but what we end up with is that there are 136 people on my 2016 list and 99 on my 2015 one.
What’s more, there were a lot of people I added for 2015 because I convinced myself to out of fear that I was falsely exaggerating the numbers by not that I’m fairly sure I would have left off 2016 for the same reason. Obviously, the number of deaths in a population remains relatively constant. More people overall probably died in 2016, because the world population increased. But the number of deaths per, say, hundred thousand probably remained constant. That seems inarguable. Where we get into debate, and where this debate will probably never be actually resolved, is the significance of the dead.
Regular readers will know, for example, that my boyfriend’s mother died in 2016. That wasn’t easy for us. But I’m sure I have readers who had someone close to them die in 2015 but not 2016, because that’s how these things work. However, in celebrity deaths, the striking thing about 2016 was the number of times you’d hear “I don’t usually care about celebrity deaths, but . . . .”
But. 2016 was bookended by the deaths in rapid succession of David Bowie and Alan Rickman in January—David Bowie died a year ago yesterday, you guys—and the deaths in rapid succession of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in December. We were so slammed by big-name deaths that there were several on the list that it was possible to miss completely. The guy who sang “Unchained Melody” died the same day as Leonard Cohen, and one of those got a heck of a lot more attention than the other. I feel as though at least part of the issue with 2016 was that we literally never had time to finish processing one celebrity death before being hit with the next one.
The list does not, in fact, support the “there are just more famous people” argument. For one, I tallied something like three of the Little Rascals, not to mention Billy Chapin of Night of the Hunter. As it happens, I left internet celebrities off my list entirely, not that there were many listed on Wikipedia to leave off. This list, with a few exceptions, was primarily made of English-language actors and writers. Some behind-the-scenes people. Some inventors. Some political figures. A fair number of musicians. At any rate, probably about ninety percent people who have an IMDb page. Many of them have had IMDb pages pretty well as long as there’s been an IMDb.
Conversely, I suppose the argument is there for “Boomers are getting old.” Or anyway, “celebrities are getting old,” because the average age is older than my mom, who is just barely too old to be a Boomer. Abe Vigoda was many things, but a Boomer he was not. Heck, Billy Chapin himself only scraped the oldest definition. Though of course two people who didn’t make either list are centenarians Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, though his ex-wife Diana died at the age of 92 in 2015. It was actually kind of interesting to see how often “oldest living such-and-such” stopped being true over the course of two years.
But the short version is, yes, more celebrities that we care a lot about died in 2016 than in 2015. I think an analysis for sports would turn up the same results, though I didn’t list many athletes. I would have apparently had to add an entire Brazilian football team, if I were listing athletes, because of a 2016 plane crash.
I also think, however, that it became a kind of shorthand. It isn’t just that we lost Alan Young and The Lady Chablis, and I say this as someone who felt at least a vague regret over both those deaths. It’s that the loss of all those celebrities was at least something everyone could agree on in a year that felt really deeply awful to a lot of us for a whole bunch of other reasons. You might not be able to get your racist uncle to agree that the political landscape in the US felt really bleak, but you could probably agree that it was sad that Kenny Baker and Florence Henderson died.