The celebrity death toll is a matter of perception


We hear 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 no selective agent making a particular year more lethal than other years.


Now if we’d had a global war, a civil war, a plague, and a collapse of society (wait until 2017 for those!), then we’d have a reason to expect a surfeit of deaths. I wonder how Syrian celebrities are faring this year?

Otherwise, though, I think this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. All it takes is the death of a few celebrities, a little nudge of superstition, like the rule of threes, and soon enough people are doing all the work for you, gleaning every mention of a death and throwing them into the tidy category of “2016!”, and that reinforces the story. You can’t remember every celebrity who died, but you can remember “a lot of celebrities died in 2016”, and that becomes the memorable link.

Alternatively, all the people who sold their soul for fame and fortune are being recalled this year because the stony-faced guardian of the portal to Hollywood Hell, Abe Vigoda, died in January 2016, unleashing a swarm of vengeful demons.

Now be honest: Who remembered that Vigoda died early this year? How many of you are now adding his name to the tally of 2016 deaths, reaffirming the myth?


  1. karley jojohnston says

    I was musing about this on Twitter, mere hours before Carrie Fisher’s death was announced. How much of the impact of this year’s deaths can be attributed to age demographics?

    The Internet became popular in the 90’s. For most of the user base, they’ll have strong nostalgia for the 80’s. 30 years later, of course beloved icons of that era are going to start dying off. And since we’re all connected via the Internet, that grief is going to be amplified.

    Which also means that people hoping that 2017 will be less cruel are in for a shock. People you know will die exponentially with each passing year. Welcome to the wonderful world of aging.

  2. Vivec says

    My problem isn’t really with the specific number of celebrities dying, it’s that damn near every musician and actor I like died.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    fuck the quantity.
    The Significance is the important thing.
    People we (singular) care about seems more frequent in 2016 than previous years. Essentially impossible to quantify with “emotional weights” fatored onto each name. That is what hurt. 2016 had approx same number of deaths as most other years, BUT.
    shit, tears are flowing. *sniffles*

  4. blf says

    karley jojohnston@1, Yesterday’s editorial in the Grauniad, The Guardian view on celebrity deaths: a dramatic meaning, made similar points:

    There may not, in fact, have been an unusual number of celebrity deaths this year, but they seem to have been much more salient than before. Part of this must be the result of the growing reach and responsiveness of digital media. Technology makes it possible to observe and react to a distant readership almost as accurately and immediately as an actor can respond to their audience in a theatre. Sudden emotional impulses are amplified with astonishing speed across the internet just as they can be in a crowd. Each apparently solitary smartphone user is really sharing other people’s emotion as well as their own.

    It’s not just emotions that are shared in this way. It’s memories as well. The generations of middle-aged people along with all their children and grandchildren have experienced a kind of collectivisation of childhood. This was a historic shift. Before the mass media, childhood memories were shared among very small groups, and anchored to particular places. But for the last 60 years, children in the west, and increasingly elsewhere, have grown up in front of televisions, and many of the most vivid characters of their childhood and adolescence were actors or singers.

  5. robro says

    The phenomenon also has something to do with the our notion of celebrity. The media invents celebrities because they generate easy material to capture eyeballs they sell to advertisers. I’m not sure with this began, but I don’t believe it goes back much before the 1920s and the advent of mass media.

    Increasingly, the media invents celebrities from whole cloth…people who have no talent other than their ability to walk and talk, wear shocking clothes, and do shocking things in front of cameras to produce stories…yes, such as our Precedent-elect. It will be interesting to see…assuming I live so long…people’s reactions when Reality Tee Vee Celebrity Stars start dropping like flies.

  6. says

    Yes, but…

    I remember 1970 — Jimi Hendrix AND Janis Joplin in the same year?

    Or personally: 1969 and 1993 were years I lost people close to me, and their impact was far greater than any celebrity you can name.

    Those emotional weights are everywhere. Think about the people who really matter to you, who are close to you, or have provided the cultural touchstones of your life, who are still alive. They’re all going to die sometime. Probably not all at once or this year, unless the giant meteor arrives real soon to clean up the mess, and that year is going to hit you really hard.

    I’m going on 60. The older you get, the more deaths you accumulate. I’ve got my father, my grandparents, my sister, my mother- and father-in-law, uncles, aunts, good friends all building up behind my eyeballs, waiting for a flash of memory to start welling outwards. 2016 was not the worst for me, by a long shot.

  7. gijoel says

    It’s been a shitty year for me. One of my cats and my estranged father died. I think I’ve dealt with it, and then something like a tweet of Carrie Fisher’s dog causes me to become a blubbering mess of tears and snot. Grief is a process and this is part of the process. It sucks, but that’s life for you.

    On a more humorous note.

  8. Snowyfields says

    I think it goes beyond celebrities. Between Brexit and Trump, its been a depressing year for most people and 2017 isn’t lining up to be much better.

  9. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @8
    (too bad this comment system lacks “approval star” mechanism. Virtualstar to @8)

  10. HappyNat says

    I agree it’s not just the number of celebrates but the people we lost. Bowie, Prince, George Micheal, and Carrie Fisher we all talented but were special to me and many others because they all said “Fuck You” to the system in some way. They spoke their mind and gave inspiration and a voice to marginalized people who didn’t feel they had a voice. All of this in a year when we have taken huge strides backwards politically. The bullshit system of oppression seems stronger than ever. I realize there is confirmation bias but it feels hopeless.

    Carrie portraying a strong women staring fascists right in the face dying in a year literal fascists have been elected all seems like a bit too much.

  11. ZugTheMegasaurus says

    Some friends of mine run a Celebrity Death Pool game every New Year’s Day. Last year, we had nearly 60 people. Everyone splits into teams and comes up with a list of celebrities they bet will die before the end of the year (and there’s some competition in who gets to claim which celebrities). Younger people get more points (for example, a few years back, some people won big by predicting Amy Winehouse).

    Hopefully that doesn’t sound completely monstrous from the outside (it’s actually a lot of fun), but it definitely makes you aware that celebrities are dropping like flies all year round.

  12. says

    I have to admit, I respected all these people too, but to be honest, I hadn’t listened to a Prince or Bowie song in years, except maybe when it came on the radio, and when they died, I wondered what they had done the last twenty years or so. The only reason why I had listened to George Michael more was that awful, awful Christmas song. I only know one franchise Carrie Fisher played in, and while I have seen the films a number of times, I never had stopped to ask myself “I wonder what she’s doing now.”

    I certainly can’t speak for other people (I can imagine people who read Fisher’s column in the Guardian had a stronger and more meaningful connection to her than I do), but I found it quite irritating that the media I consume, who hadn’t mentioned any of those people in years, at least not in a big way (otherwise, being a fairly regular reader and listener, I would have noticed more of them) suddenly started to act as if the most special and close to me people had died.

    I’m with PZ here: there are (and were) many people in my life that were (and are) much more important to me. I can still listen to Leonard Cohen, so nothing really has changed for me. It’s sad he died, and I’m sorry for those close to him, but my relationship with him was and remains defined by me finding solace and meaning in his songs. I also find it irritating that in most of these lists of stars that have died, Umberto Eco isn’t even mentioned, to say nothing of Kertész, Lee, or Dario Fo.

  13. robro says

    The older you get, the more deaths you accumulate.

    Up to a point, then it begins to tapper off…if you live long enough.

  14. robro says

    Artor @ #13

    Didn’t Abe Vigoda die every year since 1990?

    Per the Pppffff, the first report was 1982 in People magazine.

  15. says

    Aging, yes. Many of the celebs were younger than I, only a few much older.

    It also depends partly on how one defines “celebrity”; TV Guide says 60, but a recent item in the Microsoft News App listed 143 (with photos).

  16. killyosaur says

    I remembered Abe Vigoda, but forgot about Gary Shandling. I don’t think the number or importance of the celebrities is any different than years past (I agree with PZ here), when I really started thinking about it. I can remember quite a few in past years that mattered a lot to me (as much as any celebrity death matters) I think this is just a year with a number that mattered to a lot of people.

  17. franko says

    Months ago, a BBC radio programme on statistics called ‘More or Less’ addressed the question of celebrity death rates in 2016. They defined a ‘celebrity’ as someone for whom newspapers and other media have a pre-prepared obituary ready to run at a moment’s notice, which seems more reasonable than all the subjective definitions. And they found there were significantly more deaths within this group of people in the first few months of 2016 than in the same period for very many years.

    Of course, this definition of celebrities favours British celebs, and many of the big names who handed in their dinner pails earlier this year were British, so perhaps someone can do a similar exercise for US media?

  18. blf says

    The BBC show franko@19 mentioned, Celebrity deaths (it may not play outside the UK?).

    And an up-to-date BBC article, Have more famous people died in 2016?:

    “But well over half those deaths occurred in the first four months of the year,” says [BBC’s Obituaries Editor Nick] Serpell. “Then the rest of the year went back to a figure we considered normal over the past four or five years.”

    So 2016 has seen the largest number of famous people die, but it was that bump at the beginning of the year that made it so unusual.

    Although there does seem to have been an inexorable rise, Serpell says there hasn’t been any change in the BBC’s policy on what sort of person qualifies for an obituary.

    He thinks that the increase isn’t particularly surprising, because we’re now half a century on from the flourishing of both TV and pop culture in the 1960s, which massively expanded the overall pool of public figures.

    You’re going to have to get used to hearing the celebrity obituary.

    As the article mentions (not included in the above except), there are numerous limitations in the metric used (such as a bias towards only counting people more likely to be known in the UK).

  19. HappyNat says

    Bernardo Soares @12

    I have to admit, I respected all these people too, but to be honest, I hadn’t listened to a Prince or Bowie song in years, except maybe when it came on the radio, and when they died, I wondered what they had done the last twenty years or so. The only reason why I had listened to George Michael more was that awful, awful Christmas song. I only know one franchise Carrie Fisher played in, and while I have seen the films a number of times, I never had stopped to ask myself “I wonder what she’s doing now.”

    You may think this speaks ill of those people, but it rather speaks ill of you for missing out on some great contributions to art and society. Maybe the media sources you consume aren’t all that great. Bowie especially continued to produce entertaining and provocative art until the very end. It’s true we can listen/watch the art these people produced, but what’s sad, to me, is that we can no longer wait for what they will do next.

  20. says

    I didn’t say it speaks ill of these people. Neither does it speak ill of me. Tastes are different, great art lies in the eye of the beholder.

    I can certainly understand you’d want to hear more of Bowie if you’re a fan, as I think I mentioned in my comment. I’d definitely like to read more of Eco. But I don’t follow the personalization of this relationship in which mainstream media act as if I have to be emotionally involved, just because we’ve arrived at an age where the celebrities that die have some popcultural meaning in our own lives.

  21. frog says

    Along with the relative “famousness” and belovedness of this years celebrities, what about the average age? I mean, Abe Vigoda and Richard Adams and Zsa Zsa Gabor dying well into their 90s is sad, but unsurprising. John Glenn likewise, with a bonus that he packed more accomplishments into his 95 years than most of us would if we lived healthy to age 200.

    But it felt like Bowie, Rickman, Prince, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher were just too damn young to go. None of them were even 70, and Prince, Fisher, and George Michael in particular were well ahead of the serious downslope in the bell curve. These were people we could reasonably expect to see more awesomeness from. (There’s a reason if you sue for the death of a family member, you get more $ if they were young than if they were old. Morbid, but true.)

    Look at 2011, when Amy Winehouse died. She wasn’t on the level with Bowie/Prince/Michael, but I’ll allow as how she might have gotten there in years to come if she had lived. But perusing a list of celebs who died in 2011, we get icons, but they are OLD. Jack LaLanne, Harry Morgan, Peter Falk, Liz Taylor. Beloved folks, but their deaths were not unexpected or shocking. The most surprising deaths of famous folks that year were Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs and maybe Osama bin Laden. Not exactly people who were actively beloved by millions (except maybe Winehouse, but again, not on the scale of Bowie, etc).

    Or 1980, when we lost John Lennon. We also lost Steve McQueen and Peter Sellers too young. But as beloved as McQueen and Sellers were, and as much potential art we lost with them, did either of them touch so many lives as Lennon? As Bowie, Prince, and George Michael, who taught millions that non-patriarchal sexual expression was not something to be ashamed of? As Fisher, who was an icon to millions of girls and women as their first example of someone who could be a princess when young, and grow up to be an outspoken advocate for the mentally ill and who grew up to set an example for living life out loud despite the shit that gets slung at women? (Men may not have seen it. Women sure as fuck did.)

    I do think the quality of the losses was the biggest shock here, particularly the Bowie/Prince combo coming so close together and them sharing a large, overlapping fanbase. Throw Rickman into that overlapping fanbase as well, all the nerdgirls who adored all three of them. It’s a big space in the Venn diagram.

  22. rq says

    I don’t follow the personalization of this relationship in which mainstream media act as if I have to be emotionally involved

    Maybe it’s because many of the writers of that mainstream media do feel themselves emotionally involved, much like I feel emotionally involved in Carrie Fisher’s death despite never knowing her in real life, and are expressing that relationship in a more personalized manner. Becoming a journalist doesn’t necessarily deprive you of all emotional connection, despite many proofs otherwise…

  23. says

    I don’t mourn the celebrities themselves, I didn’t know any of them personally, but I do lament the loss of talent in some cases. Bowie and Prince still had years of great music to make that we will never get to hear. I don’t know if the same can be said about the rest of the list this year. Carrie will be missed simply because of her outreach on mental health, although her death will no doubtedly bring more attention to the issue than her continued living would have done, so there’s that.

  24. anbheal says

    I knew Vigoda died. For many years I have made a periodic joke in my columns about the website He also had good quotes every couple of years, along the lines of “Take THAT, George Burns!”, “Screw you, Bob Hope!”, “Ha ha, Jimmy Stewart!” whenever one of his contemporaries took the dirt nap.

    Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland are now the last remaining stars of the Golden Era. The media probably won’t make too much of a commotion when they die. They certainly didn’t for de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine.

    It’s also worth noting that Bowie was almost 70 when he died, and neither he nor Prince nor George Michael were anywhere close to their “prime”, a la Hendrix or Joplin or Morrison or Winehouse or Sam Cooke or Otis Redding or even Lennon. Ecclesiastes says “three score and ten years are the days of our lives”. Bowie had those days of his life. McCartney and Jagger and Dylan and Clapton are all 75, 76 now. They might all die in the same year. But the only odd coincidence about it will be the amount of musical talent that happened to be born in the early 1940s, and is getting up toward dying age. It’s more newsworthy when it’s Lady Di or John-John.

    But yeah, I think it’s the sucky year aspect of it that positions these recent deaths as adding insult to injury.

  25. carlie says

    But if you go by the celebrities who had BBC obits, then there were more this year than in previous years, according to the BBC More or Less stats podcast:
    audio link

    (upshot: almost a third more in the first quarter of the year, average the rest of the year, ending up in a higher total than in any of the last several years)

  26. says

    There is an old science fiction story about a journalist assigned to interview famous people so their obituaries could be up to date when they died. It centres around his interview of a famous statistician who exposes the truth of his mission. By studying death notices the statistician has discovered that there is a bias in the statistics based on the profession of the deceased. Each year more than the average number of deaths occur in a particular profession. He has uncovered a subtle but deliberate plot by the government to manipulate the population and the numbers in particular professions by systematically eliminating people according to their profession. The statistician has calculated it is the turn of statisticians to be culled. After informing the journalist of the true purpose of the interview the statistician reveals that journalists are next on the list. Now for the paranoia because I love a good conspiracy. Perhaps all the attention given to the deaths of celebrities is a smokescreen to distract us from what is really happening. By the way does anybody know this story and who wrote it. I thought it was Isaac Asimov but the closest I could find was a story called “Obituary” about an egotistical physicist who faked his own death.

  27. robro says


    She was 84. Approximately the same age as my mom.

  28. cartomancer says

    I can’t say I’ve been affected by any of this year’s celebrity deaths very much. For me 2015 was far more significant, given that it saw the final demise Sir Christopher Lee couldn’t return from, the moment Leonard Nimoy stopped living long and prospering and, most personally significant of all, the day that Death met his maker in Sir Terry Pratchett. We each have our own constellation of personally significant famous people, and none of this year’s crop of new coffin-fillers were at all involved in mine.

    Indeed, it seems to me that this media hype about the procession of celebrity deaths in 2016 is rather crass and demeaning. It suggests that people should be objectively sadder and more upset about losing this year’s batch than they were about those of other years. Implicitly it seems to say that there is some calculation we can make as to the objective worth of a dead famous person, and that in 2016 a greater total of worth was lost than has been lost in any previous year. I find that a misguided and unfair notion at the very least. Is Carrie Fisher more of a loss than Kenny Baker because she was more central to her films than he was to his? If we’re just comparing gay British singers who died young of heart failure, is 2016’s George Michael worth 30% more than 2009’s Stephen Gately because he was famous as half of a duo rather than one fifth of a boyband? We lost Nelson Mandela at the end of 2014 – is he worth four Alan Rickmans or ten? It’s not a thought process that bears scrutiny by any decent human being.

  29. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Just saw the news that Debbie Reynolds has died.

    Damn, I just reported on another thread that she had a stroke.
    I think its time for me to back off, as I still feel the primal fear when the Redhead suffered her stroke, and the decisions that may have needed to be made were heavy on my mind.

  30. cartomancer says

    Coping with the deaths of people we know and love is a whole different game though. I dread it. Absolutely dread it. My parents are in their early sixties now, and drink and smoke heavily. The unnerving aspect of all these celebrity deaths for me is that they remind me how possible it is that those two people I care about so deeply could go at any moment. I hope desperately that I have another thirty years or more left with them, but it could be as few as five or ten. That seems awfully little. It makes me anxious and uncertain, anticipating this inevitable horror. I lose sleep over it frequently. I worry about which one will go first, and how the other will cope (they’ve been together for almost fifty years). Sometimes I hope that some painless accident takes them both away at once when they’re well over a century old, so they won’t have to deal with that. Sometimes I hope it carries me off with them so I won’t either. I worry about how devastating it will be to me and my brother, because I’ve never been good at dealing with even minor changes in life.

  31. Tethys says

    I think the out-sized perception is due to how many of these people were important cultural icons. Bowie made gender bending mainstream. Prince is our Minnesota homeboy, who invented an entire genre and rocked the whole world. Carrie Fisher in Star Wars was the beginning of a powerful cultural force.

    I did remember that Abe Vigoda had died. I used to enjoy watching Barney Miller, and 2016 not only took Fish, it took Ron Glass. Shepard Book will never get to reunite with Firefly.

  32. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Pedant alert. Never was any hope of Shepard reuniting with Firefly, as Serenity wrote him a final farewell. *sniffles*
    I too used to be a Barney Miller fan. To see Fish and Glass depart, hurt.