Saturday 18 January 2020

Harry de Quetteville: For obituary editors, life and death have never been so busy

Instead of mourning the endless celeb deaths of 2016, marvel at our modern creativity, writes Harry de Quetteville

Stock photo
Stock photo

Harry de Quetteville

A few years ago, when I was the Daily Telegraph's obituaries editor, people would worry on my behalf. "What are you going to do when all the military heroes have died?" they asked, concerned that somehow we would run out of candidates worthy of gracing the page.

As 2016's apparently ceaseless catalogue of celebrity deaths has shown, however, the obits writers have never been busier.

David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood and Prince - among many other famous names - have all died in the first few months, each death producing a very public outpouring of grief on social media. That hubbub is part of the explanation for the grim perception that 2016 is proving particularly fatal - fans are able to broadcast their mourning, so no one is left oblivious of their hero's demise. But the second part of the answer is that many more celebrities are dying than normal. And that is because there simply are more celebrities. Many, many more.

The post-war rise of television and popular music has created a huge, unprecedented cadre of familiar faces. Now they are hitting their 60s and 70s, the age when death, having long been statistically remote, shuffles closer.

Our definition of celebrity has broadened too. You may not have heard of the American Joanie Laurer until earlier last week. You may not have heard of her now. But, under the moniker Chyna, she was known and loved by huge numbers of wrestling fans (and, er, aficionados of a certain genre of erotic film).

Her death made headlines around the world, because, like every other product, news has been globalised, so it is not just our own celebs we mourn, but those of other nations too.

And premature death is no stranger to the celebrity world. We do not refer to the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle for nothing. I'm no doctor, but all that self-indulgence must take its toll.

But still the question remains, why 2016? Why has this roll call of doom hit now, and so potently that one spoof news website yesterday ran the headline: "2016 to be brought to an early end - before anybody else dies."

My pet theory is this: nothing shocks us more than several famous deaths occuring in short order. It creates a spell when the Grim Reaper seems to be working not with a scythe but a Flymo.

It all makes you want to throw up your hands in despair. Don't. Sad they might be, but their deaths offer the rest of us an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate the astonishing creativity of our fellow man. That is a reason to marvel, not mourn.

© Telegraph

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