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:
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.
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!