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The Grim (Reaper) Reality: Why Did So Many Celebrities Die In 2016?

In what some are dubbing the worst year ever, and seemingly trying to topple the Black Death's peak in 1353, not many will be sad to close the door on 2016.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' [Credit: Lucasfilm]

In what some are dubbing the worst year ever, and seemingly trying to topple the Black Death's peak in 1353, not many will be sad to close the door on 2016. We stick our middle fingers up to a year that has decimated the pop culture populi. We have lost the great and the good of celebrity status, including Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and Muhammad Ali, joined most recently by Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

The "curse" of 2016 may nearly be over, but that hasn't stopped one plucky American from starting a GoFundMe project to protect Betty White until the start of 2017. While we bubble wrap the likes of Dick Van Dyke and Stan Lee, we find ourselves asking, "why have so many celebrities died in 2016?" A coincidence? Aliens? A hitman for hire taking out Hollywood stars? Let's look at the facts.

The Baby Boomers

'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' [Credit: Warner Bros]

It may normally be "Generation X" who gets the blame for ruining the planet, but this time the swarm of celebrity deaths is being laid at the foot of the "baby boomer" generation. The huge boost in the population in the 1950s makes up a huge proportion of Western countries, in particular the likes of the USA and UK where most of this year's fallen stars have come from. A great number of those who have passed this year were born in the 1946-1964 group, such as Prince, Alan Rickman, and David Bowie. In the USA, some 23% of the population in 2014 were born in those two decades, so it's only natural that as these stars enter their older years, death would be inevitable.

The rather unsavory site DeathList50 has the 50 most likely celebrities to die each year. Normally one or two of the predictions come true, whereas 2016 has heralded a bumper crop of 12/50. This being said, "surprise deaths" like Anton Yelchin and Christina Grimmie were always unlikely to have been listed.

The Fame Game

'The Voice' [Credit: NBC]

Admittedly, most of the celebrities to pass away in 2016 are more established faces from yesteryear, but it is fact that there are more stars than 20 years ago. The impact of lost a "celebrity" can be seen strewn across Facebook feeds and Twitter streams around the world, but social media has also given rise to a whole new way to adore our stars. Anyone with a webcam and a YouTube account can be classed as a celebrity now, with the likes of Zoella even garnering book deals for relatively little work.

Way back when, fame was reserved for the big Hollywood actors and guitar swinging rock stars, where nowadays it has extended to the likes of sports, soaps, and authors. Put simply, there are more celebrities than ever before. As we become a more savvy society of kids on the internet and silver surfers, people know far more famous faces than we used to. Just as parents teach younger children about stars from the past, we teach them about the up-and-coming talent. Your parents can teach you about what a great comedian Victoria Wood was, while we can teach them about Big Ang from Mob Wives. Learning about a star is but a Wiki-click away, which makes their passing felt by many more people too.


'Everybody Loves Raymond' [Credit: CBS]

You may only be as old as you feel, but the creeping onset of Father Time will eventually catch up with us all. While the media is reporting that we are all living longer, and we move toward a society of super-aged retirees living in a world without disease, the reality is that the rule can't be applied universally.

A sad fact is that not everyone can live to be Betty White, and undoubtedly some people pass away earlier. The life expectancy in the USA is 79, while it is slightly better at 82 in the UK. That puts 60-year-old Carrie Fisher well below the average life expectancy, but could account for the likes of her mother Reynolds, or Gene Wilder. Then you have Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts, who made it to the ripe old age of 90. In fact, if you add up the ages of those who class as big deaths from 2016, it comes out of an average of 84, two years higher than the UK's life expectancy. You could argue that the passing of the younger stars like Grimmie and Yelchin are the ones that stick with us more because it seems so young, while the likes of The Royle Family's 95-year-old Liz Smith was heartbreaking, but more expected.

Lifestyles Of The Rich And The Famous

'The Prestige' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

The average Joe may never get to eat Beluga caviar while toasting Bollinger off the back of a superyacht, but the celebrity lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll may be taking its toll. I'm not saying that you could find Alan Rickman nose deep in a pile of columbian marching powder at 4am, but some of those who have passed weren't exactly known for their clean living. Senior Billboard editor Jem Aswad notes:

The average life expectancy of a lot of people who were big in the '60s and early '70s—it's getting to be that time.They're all hitting their 70s. [And] given the era, there were a lot of drugs and a lot of cigarette smoking and being a touring musician performing every single night takes its toll on you.

George Michael was only 53 at the time of his death and had frequently battled his addictions, with an arrest sheet that included driving a car while intoxicated into the side of a photography store. David Bowie once called cocaine his "soulmate," and his alter-ego The Thin White Duke had a penchant for the stuff. Carrie Fisher battled with drug dependency and bipolar disorder, while Pete Burns was notorious for his frivolous taking of narcotics. A lot of the stars we have lost managed to battle their demons in the end, but you can argue that the damage had already been done. Heart failure was the biggest killer among those we said goodbye to in 2016.

It's Just A Coincidence

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' [Credit: Lucasfilm]

But maybe, just maybe, it is just a tragic coincidence. Don't look for some voodoo priest cursing Caroline Aherne or Nancy Reagan, it could just be a bad year for luck. The death of a celebrity, just like a loved one reminds us of our own mortality. So, if you think back to when you were younger, death was (hopefully) a relatively new concept to you — as we age, we lose those around us. Just look at your stereotyped tragic retiree languishing in a retirement home as all their friends have passed on around them. Sadly, everyone has to go at some point.

As we look forward to 2017 and a new start, could next year be any better? Unfortunately, the trend of celebrity deaths is likely to continue. The BBC's obituary editor Nick Serpell says:

"Over the next 10 years, these people will get into their 80s and it is going to continue at this level...And that doesn't count the surprise deaths, when people die that shouldn't."

Oh, just what we need to hear!

You have to find yourself thinking though, in a year of so many tragic deaths, the Brexit vote, and the rise of Trump, "what the hell did we do wrong?" Up yours 2016 — I'm off to stand guard over Queen Elizabeth.

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