Before we address this question, let us recognize that years do not really kill people. That’s just a poetic way of putting it, in common use.

I believe that every year starting around September or October, there is a random spate (spats are generally random, as are small droughts) of celebrity deaths, which lead to conjecture that more celebs are dying off than usual. This idea is then reinforced every time yet another celebrity dies for the remainder of the year, until we finally get to late December, and then everyone is trying to have that year arrested for mass murder. Strangely, people forget that this happened the year before.

And, of course, it is happening again now.

I briefly looked at the list of dead celebrities in Wikipedia for this year and last year, and found out two things: 1) About 300 celebrities die each year and b) the vast majority of “celebrities” listed in these Wikipedia entries are people I’ve never personally heard of, so it is unlikely that they are all really celebrities. I assume this is just another case of Wikipedia, which does an amazing and wonderful job at many things, running into something where there is a matter of definition. Such are things that Wikipedia generally handles poorly.

______________
UPDATE: Yes, it is true, that the mother of Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, has also died.

See this homage to Carrie Fisher.
______________

As for Wikipedia, I think they simply list the individuals who has Wikipedia pages who died that year. That is probably not very meaningful in the context of the current conversation.

So, I went back to Google and searched around for Celebrity Death Lists. I found one list of people who were expected to die in the upcoming year. That is a whole ‘nuther story. Eventually, I discovered the TV Guide list of dead stars. That, I figure, has got to be a useful source for this. If anybody knows who the stars are, it’s TV Guide. The list is published every year. Here is what TV guide says for the last few years:

deadcelebsaccordingtotvguide
According to TV Guide, 2016 is not a very big year for celebrity deaths at all. 2013 was remarkably more deathy, and 2015, last year, was on the high end of average. If this is true, I wonder how much the extra deathosity in 2015 is spilling over onto 2016. There were a lot of deaths in December, 2015, so maybe that matters. Remember that last year included Leonard Nimoy, Maureen O’Hara, Oliver Sachs, and others whose names may have lingered in our minds to add to the perception of 2016 as a killer year.

I checked some other sources to see if the TV Guide pattern held.

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-3-28-11-pm

Look first at the CNN data. I assume that the very low number for 2012, and the lack of a clear page on this topic in 2010, indicates that we should ignore those years and only look at 2012 onward. If we do that, it is confirmed that 2016 is nothing special, relatively low, or maybe average.

I also looked at MSN’s pages, and there the numbers are reversed. 2016 is very high, and much higher than the earlier years.

Excepting CNN in 2011, the CNN and TV Guide years seem to be of a believable (using my gut instincts only) range of variation, and as a matter of fact, the difference between the two data sets is believable, if we simply assume that CNN includes more people than TV guide because they are an international news agency with a broader focus. In this context, MSN makes no sense and I would argue that it should be ignored.

Or, perhaps, MSN is the truth and everything else is a lie.

Personally, I think there is something else going on. I think 2016 was not an exceptional year for celebrity deaths, in terms of numbers. The same number as usual died, this was not a record year.

But, the particular celebrities that did die included a disproportionate number of people that those who inhabit Facebook and Twitter, or perhaps, who simply exist in the modern Western world, were attached to. (See the graphic I made for the top of the post for a sampling of iconic individuals who died in 2016.)

I can think of ways to test that idea, but they all involve data collection, calibration, analysis, etc. at a masters level. I’ll leave it to a communications or marketing graduate student, or an anthropologist, to work that out!

Comments

  1. #1 dean
    December 27, 2016

    Probably not relevant, but at my first reflection it seems that a good number of “celebrities” who died this year were
    a) quite well known (duh!)
    b) famous from a time when entertainment outlets were much more limited than now (fewer television networks, no social media, etc.) and because of that sense of “commonality” a higher percentage of people recognize them, hence the extra noise about all the deaths

    One other minor point: perhaps George Michael died too late for a specific mention, but: I was no fan of his music, but his philanthropy, much of which is just becoming public, is well worth a mention.

  2. #2 Brenda
    USA
    December 27, 2016

    I suppose you are focused on American sources, but the BBC’s numbers are even different from CNN, MSN and TV Guide – and this article was posted before Carrie Fisher and George Michael died. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38329740

  3. #3 Wow
    December 27, 2016

    Well,George’s work was a lot better when he left the label.

    I especially liked the one about going out for a picnic, “Let’s go outside”. Rather similar to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s song about arriving somewhere in a calm state of mind.

  4. #4 Hengist
    December 27, 2016

    Before we start making year by year statistical comparisons I’d like to say your idea of a celebrity might be very different to my idea of a celebrity.

  5. #5 Wow
    December 27, 2016

    Hengist, when it comes to celebrity, one person’s idea of it is irrelevant.And its not as if Greg is counting what HE considers celebrities,either, so your “point” is rather pointless.definition

    The TVGuide should be a decent source for identifying what a celebrity is, since they’re measuring the imprint of media personalities on huge numbers of people.

    You may disagree with their metrics, but you may well be part of them, so you had your say, and if you aren’t, then your opinion is valueless. You don’t get to decide any more than Greg does.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    December 27, 2016

    Hengist: Yes, indeed, which is why I made the comparisons across years using the same editorial entity as the deciders, and looked at more than one.

    Brenda: The BBC’s numbers aren’t different, they are simply unrelated. They are measuring something entirely different using a funky and inappropriate metric.

    The BBC is inconstant in their year end summaries. Dates from 2013 are not really usable. The article you cite says 24 for this year, which is probably not what their actual year end article will say when it comes out on December 31st. It is possible to get the BBC numbers for 2014 and 2015

    So, the BBC has it this way:

    2014: 41
    2015: 38
    2016: 24 or more.

  7. #7 Walt Garage
    December 27, 2016

    Mostly, I think it has to do with Boomers feeling their mortality and Boomers still controlling a lot of what passes for news in our world. I am officially part of the Boomer cohort, although personally I think I was born too late. Even so, many of us grew up with these celebrities, so seeing them go just hurts a little more.

    David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey and Paul Kanter all in the first month of the year, with Bowie’s death coming so soon after releasing new material just kind of primed the pump, so to speak. Every death after that just reminded us of the way the year had started.

    And it makes for good outrage/sadness on Facebook when we get tired of lashing out at Trump (NC, NRQ) and need another outlet.

  8. #8 Kele
    United States
    December 27, 2016

    I would suggest that the double wallop of Bowie and Prince skewed perceptions. These two were popular artists who transcended generations — they were adored by both older people and younger people and were figures with whom fans identified closely. That they were also musical artists meant that musicians could honor them by playing their music, something not available to actors really and not to politicians and figures associated with specific events (e.g., John Glenn), etc.

  9. #9 Sam Lyon
    December 28, 2016

    “funky and inappropriate metric” same like with your election predictions LOL

  10. #10 Wow
    December 28, 2016

    George Michael was more Gen-X.

  11. #11 Wow
    December 28, 2016

    Sam, the poll predictions had Hillary ahead by 3%. The popular vote was won by a 2% margin by Hilary (hence the “there are three million illegal immigrants voting for Hilary in California!” claim by trumpies. Just enough to give Trump the popular vote if it happened to be true. Funny how trumpies go “that’s unimportant” about the popular vote, but still are lying their asses off to “win” it).

    And the error in margin for the statistic was 3%. Meaning it was likely to be a tie. Indeed the prediction was 2:1 chance of Hilary winning (trump 33%, Hilary 66%). A one-in-three chance turning up?

    So, in what way was it “funky”?

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    December 28, 2016

    Walt, I agree. Kele, I think that’s right.

    Sam: This looks like the psychic unity of humankind poking through!

    Wow: Depends. If my wife is Gen-X then yes.

  13. #13 Wow
    December 28, 2016

    Well, thinking about it, Carrie Fisher is more Gen-X. Look at her pic there. Star Wars Carrie. Which was ANH in the 70’s a movie for kids.

    As for the definitions:

    Generation X
    noun
    noun: Generation X; plural noun: Generation Xs

    the generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless.

    likewise, Wham was the 80s version of the boy band thing. For teenage girls. I don’t know the age of your missus, but even if she was early 20’s, outliers exist. Barrelhouse Boogie and early Blues was liked by Gen-X but was “supposedly” silent generation music (for Barrelhouse Boogie) to Boomer, (Blues)..

  14. #14 Wow
    December 28, 2016

    “some gen-x”.

    Makes a big difference to say that instead of just gen-x.

  15. […] a lot about how awful the year 2016 has been…but have the obituaries actually been that frequent? Greg Laden compares the number of celebrity deaths this year vs. other years, and the answer is no. Which is actually what I expected — there is no causal mechanism and […]

  16. #16 Lemmie
    UK
    December 28, 2016

    From a UK perspective using BBC obituaries is probably about as fair a method of looking at it as any… but that’s not perfect either.

    From an Indy article earlier today Nick Serpell (The BBC Obit. writer) is quoted as saying that the BBC, “used 30 per cent more pre-prepared obituaries” this year compared to last.

    When you’re looking at any media source it’s pretty much guesswork. For any of them you have to allow for other major news stories taking place at the same time, the right editor who sees the importance of noting the death of whichever celebrity it may be. There are too many variables.

    I suspect Nick Serpell’s, “30% increase” is high, but my gut tells me that there has been a change.

    Social media may play a part but I suspect the biggest element is simply that there are more celebrities now than ever before and they’re aging.

    When I was a kid some, 30 – 40 years ago, we had 3 TV channels, fewer movie releases and a successful pop song could and regularly did top the charts for 6+ weeks. There’s been a massive change in sources of celebrity and overall numbers in my lifetime. More recently with the advent of the internet it’s all change again. There must be far more celebrities now aged 50+ (yes I know that’s young but mortality risks increase with age) than ever before.

    For those thinking that 2016 has seen a shift I’m pretty sure 2017 won’t see a shift back. 2016 wasn’t an aberration, it was the new reality.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    December 28, 2016

    Lemmie:

    I’m not sure that other news stories actually push dead celebrities off the page. They still get covered, still get on the list. They might get pushed out of the public consciousness, but not out of the editorial office.

    But there is probably a huge bias in prepared obituaries. I know for a fact that editors have various approaches to this, to keeping a set of such things up and ready. They cut into the budget, have to be updated which cuts into the budget more. I will assume until proven otherwise that the number of prepared obituaries set up in a given news agencies is primarily a function of many factors, including editorial policy, budgetary considerations, etc., and is not closely correlated to death patterns.

    The fact that there are more celebrities per year because of demographics, and possibly that there is a greater potential range of those who are well enough known because of changes in media, is interesting. For example, 10 years ago there was not the plethora of “amateur talent” shows (in the US and UK) spewing out dozens of additional celebrities per year. And all the channels, etc.

    But the evidence suggests that 2016 wasn’t high. If anything, the trends you are talking about matter a lot, but over decadal scales. So the 2010’s have more than the 2000s, which have more than the 1990s, etc.

  18. #18 dean
    United States
    December 28, 2016

    But there is probably a huge bias in prepared obituaries.

    Some of us who have no intention of dying soon have obituaries already prepared. Nothing wrong with that.

  19. #19 Brenda
    United States
    December 28, 2016

    I didn’t mean to imply that BBC was superior or inferior to MSN, CNN or TV Guide, which you already demonstrated have very different totals. Merely that it was another piece of the data puzzle. Their metric probably isn’t any more “funky and inappropriate” than the sources you’ve selected, or than Wikipedia, which you rejected. I’m not even sure what is “completely different” about the BBC article given that they mention many of the same celebrities you’ve pictured above – could you explain? And why aren’t the numbers from 2013 usable? If you’ve found a clearer year end summary page from BBC, I’d love to get the link.

    By the way, ff you read to the end of the BBC article, the numbers are very different from what you’ve included in your comment, which is that there were more celebrity deaths in 2016. You seem to have cited their number for the first part of 2016 rather than the total so far. See quote below:

    “In 2012, we had a total of 16,” says Serpell. “In 2013, it went to 24. In 2014, it rose again to 29. In 2015, it rose slightly again to 32.” For 2016, as of 15 December, it stands at 42.

  20. […] Factually, 2016 is not actually killing more celebrities than normal. Now we can move on, because I’m not writing this letter to settle an Internet debate. […]

  21. #21 Rattus Norvegicus
    December 28, 2016

    I think that what is hitting people this year — at least late boomers and early Gen-X’ers — is that a lot of people who were iconic while they (we) were growing up died. It makes us all feel old.

  22. […] Most of us are ready for this year to be over. It’s seemed like a rough go lately. On top of what’s arguably been the shittiest political outcome in decades, we’ve lost a number of important celebrities and icons. Though, if we take a closer look, and set Trump aside, it hasn’t been that bad. […]

  23. #23 horsa
    in geardagum
    December 29, 2016

    Well, it didn’t seem to be more than usual to me. However, it is a visceral reminder of youth, when you thought you were going to live forever. Eventually larger-than-life people start to die off who once seemed like permanent fixtures in your life, and you go buh.. whaa?

    But I suspect that a shallow obsession with celebrity culture heightened by the vapid gibbering of social media may have something to do with it.

  24. […] Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and George Michael being among the latest. But is 2016 really an extra bad year for celebrity deaths? –“So, aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy your […]

  25. […] seems like there have been more losses in 2016 than ever before, although a scientist crunched some numbers and concluded that 2016 may not be so unusual. What’s different about this year is the power […]

  26. #27 Hengist
    UK
    December 30, 2016

    I’m unconvinced that we’re talking about a measurable phenomenon. You appear to be taking lists of dead celebs that have already been compiled after the deaths. So people are dying, as they do, then a decision is made by an editor whether that death makes the list for that year. That’s not even about celebrity, it’s about whether death is noteworthy. What if , for reasons of space (or good taste) the outlet chose to print a shorter death list one year. And the general population death toll must be variable too from year to year. Which brings us to the question of what general population are we talking about? Im in the UK , so I expect death to be a fairly rare and noteworthy occurence, but if I got my news from the Syrian media for example where death is much more commonplace right now I would expect to see more death of both famous and not famous people(should that not be factored in ). Or would I ? Perhaps the Syrian MSM doesnt bother reporting deaths of famous people from natural causes in a country where kids are dying because of political causes.

    Perhaps Im missing something. Do TV Guide (which one precisely) CNN or MSN publish some definitive test of whether an individual qualifies as a celebrity ?

    A wise economist said, In the long run we are all dead. Yes its noteworthy when it touches you , when it’s someone close to you and some of us like to think we are close to ahem stars. And we try and make sense out of it. But I dont think this approach is succeeding in that regard , sorry.

  27. #28 Hengist
    December 30, 2016

    I’m baffled by #5. What metrics do the TV Guide use to confer or deny celebrity status ? It’s implied here in the blogpost and in the comments but these metrics do not appear to exist. Metrics, to me , mean standards by which things can be measured. Surely it is just casual opinion of those in the media bubble. It changes over time last year’s celeb can be this year’s villain. Are we saying that a single mention in the TV Guide makes you a celebrity, or what ? I’m not disputing that celebrity exists, I’m saying the border between celebrity and non celebrity is fuzzy and highly subjective, and nothing I have read here disabuses me of that intuition

  28. #29 Hengist
    December 30, 2016

    Also can’t people lose celebrity status? In which case their death might not be reported. Thumb through an old copy of a TV Guide and tell me if everybody in there is still famous or alive ! How are we dealing with ex-celebrities or retired from celebrity or people who just want their privacy back. I maintain that you’re not measuring celebrity death at all, you’re measuring notable deaths and that’s not the same thing.

  29. #30 David S.
    December 30, 2016

    Actually, the numbers are really up this year. TV Guide does not cover everybody who are not household names by many.

    Actress cowgirl Virginia Herrick died this year. She did mainly westerns of the 50s and 60s.
    Liz Smith was not covered by US media, but we have seen her in several movies here in the US like High Spirits, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp and several Pink Panther films.
    Some actors from Star Wars also died this year who were UK or Australian actors mainly.
    Some memorable character actors died like Alice Drummond, Don Calfa, David Margulies, Joe Santos and many more.
    I am looking at the site Life In Legacy, and we have more reported there than the news media. Just today, we got news about Anne Graves, actress of the movie The Magic Sword alongside Basil Rathbone and Gary Lockwood.

  30. #31 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2016

    David, in order to know if the numbers are up, you have to compare with other years.

  31. […] data showing that this year shows a lesser amount of 2016 deaths than proceeding years dating all the way to 2010, according to Science Blogs. It looks like 2013 was quite high in its celebrity losses. If you […]

  32. […] that there were famous people who died this year, just like every year. However, science blogger Greg Laden makes it clear that of the last 7 years, 2016 has had the fewest celebrity […]

  33. […] few days ago I posted this item asking if it was really true that more celebrities have died this year than usual. That post went […]

  34. #35 Christopher Winter
    December 31, 2016

    It would be (somewhat) interesting to correlate age at death with the number of celebrity deaths reported each year. I suspect that those who die young get reported more.

    However, I could be wrong. Zsa Zsa Gabor got a lot of coverage.

  35. #36 Christopher Winter
    December 31, 2016

    Hengist (#29): Also can’t people lose celebrity status? In which case their death might not be reported. Thumb through an old copy of a TV Guide and tell me if everybody in there is still famous or alive !

    Certainly they can lose celebrity status. I can think of a few examples from TV shows that were popular back in the day: Anthony Eisley (Hawaiian Eye); Diane McBain (Surfside Six); Karen Valentine (Room 222). Without checking, I’d have no idea if these former celebrities are alive.

  36. #37 Christopher Winter
    December 31, 2016

    I got curious and checked in the IMDB. Here are the dates:

    Anthony Eisley (1925-2003)
    Diane McBain (1941- )
    Karen Valentine (1947- )

    All had extensive TV careers.

    Incidentally, there is a list of 1,672 dead actors, created by an IMDB user. I don’t link to it because it’s not ordered in any definite way — certainly not by date of death.

  37. #38 Walter Ian Kaye
    USA
    December 31, 2016

    All I know is, this is the first year I thought that the old saying “They go in threes” became obsolete.

  38. #39 Eric Lund
    December 31, 2016

    Celebrity is a matter of geography. One reason the BBC list may appear wonky is because somebody who was a celebrity in the UK but not elsewhere is more likely to be on that list than a list compiled by somebody outside the UK. There would be similar issues with any such list compiled outside the US: they are much more likely to include people who were famous in that country but not the US. For instance, David Hasselhof is much more famous in Germany than the US, so while he might turn up on a US-based list the year he dies, he will be much more prominent on such a list compiled by Der Spiegel or Deutsche Welle.

    What that says is that, while no method will be perfect, Greg’s method of comparing lists from a given source to earlier lists from the same source is the most likely approach to give a meaningful answer. That answer will still depend on the source, however.

  39. #40 Wow
    January 1, 2017

    That method is also

    1) NOT claiming himself to be the arbiter of celebrityhood, hengist.
    2) NOT an obscure and incomprehensible method of determining who could be included in celebrityhood, hengist.

    Apparently, hengist wants no one person to decide who is a celebrity, nor does he want an organisation whose work is finding out who watches what and why to decide from their data who is a celebrity. Hengist doesn’t want ANYONE to decide who is a celebrity. Hengist just wants a whinge. Even Hengist doesn’t know why.

  40. #41 Christopher Winter
    January 1, 2017

    Here’s a site I last used maybe ten years ago. Back then it was a valuable reference for finding out if someone prominent had died. It still is.

    Incidentally, it says William Christopher (Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H died on 31 December. So bump the 2016 total up to 61.

    http://www.whosaliveandwhosdead.com/

  41. #42 Wow
    January 1, 2017

    Richard Adams (writer of Watership Down) also died 2016.

  42. […] לא כל כך שונה מכמות הסלבס שנפטרו ב-2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 או 2015. גרג לאדן כתב פוסט על כך, בהתבסס על נתונים מתוך TV Guide. הנה מספר הסלבס שנפטרו בכל […]

  43. […] certain amount of grace, and just now, she had the grace to wait until a reasonable time after the spate of celebrity deaths that captivated the Internet for weeks to pass on to the great Newsroom In The […]

  44. […] that 2016 was a particularly lethal year for celebrities, when it was actually either average or possibly a bit less lethal than most years. But, as this article in the Huffington Post outlines, people who became […]