8 Jun 2016

Celebrity deaths and the grief police

12:20 pm on 8 June 2016

A big year for obituaries?

Afraid so. Obituary page editors report unprecedented competition for space in 2016, a year which has already witnessed a surfeit of famous sorts passing away.

Do you mean "dying"?


Such as whom?

Most recently, the colossal Muhammad Ali. But the last five-and-a-bit months have also waved goodbye to Prince and David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Harper Lee. Garry Shandling. George Martin. Alan Rickman. Victoria Wood. Martin Crowe. Lemmy from Motorhead. Johan Cruyff. Ronnie Corbett. On it goes.

And Jack Black?

Jack Black?

Jack Black.

No, Jack Black is fine. The Twitter account of his band, Tenacious D, was hacked on Sunday, and subject to a "prank" announcing the actor's death.

What a clever and funny prank.

Yes it is a very clever and funny prank, and part of a wider "celebrity death hoax" genre, which has flourished online.

It includes a subcategory of hoax deaths said to have occurred while filming in New Zealand, whose number include Tony Danza, Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise and Tupac Shakur.


Correction: he was wrongly announced to have been found alive in New Zealand.

Which of the actual deaths of 2016 is the greatest?

That's a tasteless question. Mind you, there are unconfirmed reports of fierce competition.

Is it empirically true that the celebrity death toll is high in 2016?

There's evidence of a kind. Early last month, the website Gizmodo compared the rate since 2010 at which "notable individuals" - as defined by Wikipedia - had met their maker.

Do you mean "died"?


And what did this study find?

It found that while there was not an increase in the overall number of "notable" deaths, the rate was markedly higher in the first months of 2016 when it comes to "megastars" (a category based on the crude but mostly effective measure of links to an individual's page within Wikipedia).

How to explain it?

The BBC obituaries editor, speaking following the death of Prince, blamed the housing crisis on baby boomers.

The housing crisis?

Sorry, slip of the finger. The BBC obituaries editor attributed the "phenomenal" rate of celebrity deaths on baby boomers, saying: "People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die." He added: "There are also more famous people than there used to be. In my father or grandfather's generation, the only famous people really were from cinema - there was no television. Then, if anybody wasn't on TV, they weren't famous."

Could be that. Or it could be a coincidence.

It could be.

Or it could be that many of them have faked their own deaths, after being pursued for having known too much about 9/11?

Have you been reading too much internet?



Or could it be that we're just making more fuss than we once might have; that media saturation and social media and all that have given rise to performative mourning?

Perhaps. There has been a bit of a backlash against some of the mainstream and social media funereal chin stroking, with (non-fatal) shots fired around the "grief police" and the "virtual graveside version of the new political correctness" and the "mixture of narcissism and virtue-signalling masquerading as grief" and the "hearse chasing" and "platitudes and inanities" and "flood of sob-signalling".

Golly. That seems a bit harsh.

It does a bit. While there are reasons for scepticism, there's also something to be said for the argument that the death of a person you admire matters - and, yes, of course it's all about you, but isn't all grief in some way?


Yes, perhaps. When received via social media, meanwhile, there can be a greater "intimacy and sense of ownership", according to someone who is apparently - don't laugh - "an expert in digital mourning and commemorative culture". There is, she adds, "a proximity to our own personal lives that creates this direct hit to our self".

Mawkishness and inauthenticity are alive and kicking on social media after the death of a luminary, but at the same time it can offer a therapeutic and celebratory forum for grieving in cultures where a suffocating stiff-upper-lippishness is often the stock response to an old chum popping their clogs.


That's the one.

The 25-word version?

Too many heroes are dying, probably owing to a mix of cultural demographics and shitty luck. Sometimes people respond weirdly. Can we impose a moratorium?

And five?

Toby Toby stamp

* This column is part of a weekly series published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.