David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. Sharon Jones. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. The list of the icons that we’ve lost this year reads like a morbid update of We Didn’t Start the Fire.
At times, the deaths have come so rapidly that we haven’t had time to process one before being slugged by another. In January, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey within eight days. And just since Christmas, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother Debbie Reynolds.
We talk of 2016 as a particularly awful year. It’s as though a temporal supervillain is stalking our most beloved celebrities. Artist Chris Barker has been compiling images of this year’s losses into a 2016 remix of the Sgt Pepper’s cover – he’s now run out of room.
As George RR Martin – whose own demise is widely feared by fantasy aficionados – wrote this week , “Death, death, and more death … please, let this wretched year come to an end.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as the calendar ticking over. The BBC tested the perception that 2016 has seen an unusual outbreak of celebrity deaths by counting the obituaries it has published. The first four months were an outlier, but overall there had been a consistent increase since 2012. So there were more this year – but the years ahead should be worse still.
BBC obituaries editor Nick Serpill says this is 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.” It makes sense, especially factoring in the post-war population bubble. And in most cases, it’s Baby Boomers whom we’ve been mourning.
To Gen Xers like me, these losses feel particularly shocking because we’re losing people who’ve been superstars for as long as we can remember. Let’s Dance, Diamonds and Pearls and Faith were on high rotation at our place during my childhood, and those artists’ peak popularity coincided with the advent of music videos. They really were everywhere.
I was born the year Star Wars came out, so Princess Leia has been a hero since I was old enough to have them. And like so many, I have learnt of Ali’s feats with no little awe.
Once, the icons on our walls were religious – now they’re actors, athletes and pop stars. We once memorised prayers and mantras, now it’s lines, lyrics and stats. Cultural highlights like a big album or movie serve as the waypoints in our own lives.
Pop culture helps us form our own identities, too. So many have said that Bowie helped them understand their sexuality, and that Leia inspired them by proving women could be heroes instead of needy damsels, and that Ali made them feel proud of their ethnicity or religion. Many of these artists pushed the boundaries of what’s permissible, and the rest of us followed behind them.
It might seem strange to mourn people who simply made music, or played other people on screen – and were paid well to do so. But we do it because life is about more than politics and economics, and culture is what we do with much of our free time.
We don’t gather around the fire to hear the village storyteller, we gather in darkened halls to watch movies, or plays, or hear music. And when we mourn a cultural figure’s death, we are acknowledging what they did for us when they lived.
Previously, the only collective space for mourning was on the streets, where Londoners congregated after Princess Diana’s death. But now our primary shared space is online. We no longer don sackcloth, or tear our hair, but we still perform public displays of grief.
Nowadays, we try to bundle up our shock and sorrow into words that somehow capture those feelings, and we publish them on social media. All year, we’ve been finding the words to say what these departed heroes meant to us. And when other people leave a reply, it reminds us that we’re not alone in feeling this way. This is perhaps another reason why 2016 feels so sad – because we’ve all mourned together, all year.
Despite the sorrow threaded throughout this year, each loss has also provided an occasion for celebration. Whenever we lose someone, we’re reminded to enjoy their work all over again – and doing so makes us confident that it will live on. Because while death is an inevitability, the greatest artists never truly leave us.