Why Have So Many People Died In 2016?

Prince passed away yesterday, April 21. Northfoto/Shutterstock

In case you haven’t noticed, 2016 has already been a terrible year for celebrity deaths. We are just four months in and we’ve had to say our final goodbyes to actor Alan Rickman, producer David Gest, autobiographer Howard Marks, architect Zaha Hadid, wrestler Chyna, writer Harper Lee, sitcom actress Doris Roberts, starman David Bowie, and now indefinable musical pioneer Prince, to name but a few.

But between all the superstition, ideas of “curses”, and conspiracy theories, what can we dig out from 2016’s statistical bump on the nose? There are a few theories knocking around.

First of all, it’s not strictly your imagination or social media that has created the impression more famous people have died this year. The obituary editor for the BBC, Nick Serpell, described the number of significant deaths this year as “phenomenal.” He noted a year-on-year rise in the number of obituaries he had written in the first four months of recent years – from five by April of 2012 to 24 by April 2016.

One theory is that this is the baby boomer generation reaching the end of their lives. In the post-war years between 1946 and 1964, there was a huge spike in population across many countries in the Western world. Now, with this generation reaching the latter half of their years, it makes sense that it seems more famous people are dying simply because there are more people dying in general.

The Telegraph looked into this by looking at England and Wales’ Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly death rates throughout 2016. Over the past five years, there has been a slight increase of around 3 percent more. But a spokesperson for the ONS told the Telegraph that this is still within the bounds of normal variance.

Tributes to David Bowie, a short walk from his childhood home in Brixton, south London. chrisdorney/Shutterstock

However, still in line with the baby boom argument, the kids of the 1940s, '50s and '60s were the first proponents of pop culture. With disposable incomes, mass-produced televisions and Elvis shaking around, the generations that grew up in the '50s and '60s were the first to really get swept away with the idea of celebrity, some becoming celebrities themselves. Perhaps there’s a disproportionate number of famous people per head from this generation now reaching their late fifties, sixties, and seventies?

Indeed, Prince, Alan Rickman, and David Bowie would all fit the bill of this baby-boomer argument. That’s not to mention the somewhat “extreme” lifestyles many of them led (mentioning no names).

This argument of there being more celebrities also links to the idea that the criteria for what make a “celebrity” these days has been lowered. Nowadays, 15 minutes of fame can last a lifetime. That said (and this is subjective), 2016 does appear to have been particularly harsh to celebrities deemed iconic, widely appreciated, or dearly beloved, while being brazenly indifferent to the explosion of recently-spawned reality television and social media stars.

Many feel that the rise of social media has played its part, though. Over the past decade, we have learned to communicate more widely and at an ever-accelerating speed. This could mean that notable deaths are now more amplified and widely reported. In days gone by a notable death would result in a news bulletin, then perhaps a one-hour TV special or commemorative concert at best. Now, it’s live newsfeeds constantly updating with tributes, anecdotes, and homages. Maybe the numbers are not higher, but the perception is larger.

Finally, it could all just be chance. Chance has no memory, they say – and it apparently has no heart either. Blips and spikes that appear to be freak anomalies can just happen, such is the nature of randomness. But, science doesn’t like to leave things to mere chance. So perhaps the coming years will show if this is a trend, a blip or a matter of perception.

The BBC's Nick Serpell is convinced that this trend will continue for at least 10 years, but only time will tell. In the meanwhile, listen to more music, read more books, watch more films, laugh more, and don't stop having heroes.

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