In Depth

Celebrity deaths: Why did so many famous people die in 2016?

Music legends Prince and David Bowie were among the many high-profile casualties of the year

First it was David Bowie. Then Terry Wogan – and then Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Victoria Wood and Prince. That was only in the first four months of 2016, prompting fears that there would be nobody left in the entertainment industry by the end of the year. 

After the loss of several others, including Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen and Muhammad Ali, it seemed as if 2016 had been especially deadly for famous faces. The New Yorker even published a cartoon depicting an angel telling death ,"Maybe cool it on the beloved celebrities for a bit".

But have there really been more high-profile deaths than usual?

Yes, says Linnea Crowther who writes celebrity obituaries for Legacy.com. In the first quarter of 2016 alone, 32 celebrities died than in the same period of any of the previous six years. The death rate was almost twice as many as the average of 17. 

Crowther's analysis also found that while few of those stars were particularly young - no Kurt Cobain-esque deaths - the average age at the time of passing was lower than in those previous years - 73.5, against 76.8 in 2010-15, largely thanks to a large number of celebrities dying in their sixties. 

The BBC, meanwhile, said it saw a spike in the number of pre-prepared obituaries it found itself having to run, particularly in the first quarter, when twice as many were used as against the same period in 2015. 

Across the whole year to 15 December, 42 have been used so far, against 32 for 2015, while cautioning that it is a fairly "crude" measure for celebrity deaths. 

Movie website IMDB lists a staggering 3,598 people on its database who died in 2016. Its "Starmeter" has Alan Thicke at number one, followed by Titanic actor Bernard Fox, Alan Rickman and Anton Yelchin. 

Still, none of these analyses draws particular conclusions for the increase. Another reason that we may feel like the Grim Reaper is especially targeting celebrities could be the prevalence of social media, suggested columnist Ian Jack in The Guardian.

"The dead live among us today as they haven't since the memento mori of the Victorian parlour," he says.

Social networks made it easier for fans to share memories of a beloved celebrity, he wrote, while the boundless word count of online newspapers has encouraged a tendency towards extended tributes for even minor public figures.

In the past, the space limitations of printed newspapers meant celebrity deaths were confined to a few paragraphs in the obituary section – even John Lennon had to share the Guardian's front page with a story about the European Economic Community.

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