Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Year of Death

New York Magazine christened the summer of 2009, "the Summer of Death." And there can be little argument that it is not a fitting sobriquet.  This summer saw the deaths of such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, John Hughes, Edward Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, and yet others. For the whole of the summer it seemed as if the news was little more than an endless stream of obituaries. If nothing else would, it would seem the summer of 2009 would put an end to the old idea that celebrities die in threes. This summer, it seemed as if they died in sixes and even twelves.

That having been said, I think it might not quite be accurate to call 2009 the "Summer of Death." The reason for this is simply that it seems to me that the celebrity deaths did not start with the summer of 2009 or even the spring of 2009. They started with the very beginning of the year. Character actor Pat Hingle died when 2009 was only three days old. Later in January Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalbahn, and  Sir John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) died. As the year progressed, 2009 would see the deaths of James Whitmore, Philip Jose Farmer, Wendy Richard, Paul Harvey, Natasha Richardson, J. G. Ballard, Bea Arthur, David Carradine, and yet others all pass well before summer. It is now autumn and no celebrities have died yet. The way this year has been going, however, it seems likely there will be more celebrity deaths.

Of course the $64,000 question is why there have been so many celebrity deaths this year. I think the primary reason is that many of those who were central to Anglo-American pop culture are simply getting old. Walter Cronkite was 92 years old. Ed McMahon was 86, as was Bea Arthur. Ricardo Montalbahn was 88. Patrick McGoohan was 80. It is a sad fact of life that human beings are not immortal. We are all going to die at some point, and that reality becomes more likely with advancing age.

While many of the celebrities who have died have been old, it does seem as if many of them simply died young. A prime culprit was cancer. It took Farrah Fawcett at the age of 62. It took Patrick Swayze at the age of 57. It took Wendy Richard at the age of 65. Other celebrities died young from other causes. Natasha Richardson was only 45 when she died from a head injury. John Hughes died of a heart attack at the age of 59. Character actor Dale Swann died at the age of 61 from complications from a stroke. There is no rational explanation for the extreme number of relatively young celebrities who have died from many different causes this year.  It seems that instead of taking a holiday, Death has decided to work overtime.

We can only hope that in these last few months of 2009 fewer celebrities die. As it is there was a time when it seemed as if a day could not go by, let alone a week, with the news of some celebrity's death. I rather suspect that more celebrities have died in 2009 than some two years combined. In the end, it seems as if the most fitting toast this coming New Year's Eve might be, "To absent friends."


Holte Ender said...

It was a thought I had just recently, that every day someone in the public eye is dying. I bet you would like a week to write something other than obits. Here's hoping you get that week (or two).

Toby O'B said...

So say we all. The list of names I've been compiling for the end of the year salute at Inner Toob is daunting!

Moor Larkin said...

It's the passing of the Golden Generation. Those who changed the western world (at least)... forever - maybe.

Let's hope we left behind don't end up merely undoing all their work.

Jim Marquis said...

This is an interesting topic. Here's my question...why do we especially hope less CELEBRITIES die between now and the end of the year? Do we also hope less HUMANS die before the end of the year?

Terence Towles Canote said...

J., I think in hoping fewer celebrities die in the last months of this year, we hope fewer humans. I think part of the reason the deaths of celebrities have an impact on us isn't simply because these are sometimes people who have had an impact on our lives, but because to a degree it reminds of us of our own mortality.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

I think you are correct.
Another way their death impacts us is we think about the time in our lives we saw their work and perhaps with who and where it was viewed and not only the recent passing, but those places and people gone with them or hopefully still near and dear.