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The Summer of Celebrity Death Has Taken Too Many Beloved Figures

Feels like . . . '03, when Buddy Hackett, Katharine Hepburn, Barry White and Strom Thurmond died within nine days of each other that summer.
Feels like . . . '03, when Buddy Hackett, Katharine Hepburn, Barry White and Strom Thurmond died within nine days of each other that summer. (Ed Bailey - AP)
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How much of our mourning is mourning, and how much is momentum?

HollywoodMemoir.com is a popular site that tracks both the dead and the merely ailing ("Patrick Swayze likely to live a few more months," a recent update reads). On an average day, about 1,000 newcomers arrive at the site through a generic Google search for "Hollywood deaths" or "celebrity deaths." If a famous person dies, that number generally doubles, says site founder John Park.

But in the week following Michael Jackson's death, Park's server repeatedly crashed, as 17,000 people each day searched for famous demises. "The only reason they even thought about celebrity death was Michael Jackson," Park says. Once they reached the site, they discovered that everyone was suddenly dying.

Everyone was always dying, of course. It's the order and the context that were important: The surprising death of one of the most famous humans on the planet raised the public's awareness. Jackson -- and Fawcett -- made us seek meaning and see patterns. They were truly earthquakes, but other deaths might have been more like aftershocks -- the reverberations proving something huge had just happened. If Jackson and Fawcett hadn't died, would we still be calling this the summer of death? Is the July passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning Frank McCourt (melanoma) enough of a linchpin?

History is full of these celebrity death clusters, the passing of one elevating the passing of another. Buddy Hackett was a funny man, but perhaps news of his 2003 death was intensified by its placement in the middle of the deaths of Katharine Hepburn, Strom Thurmond and Barry White. John Lee Hooker and Carroll O'Connor have been exponentially mourned since they died on the same day back in 2001.

Two deaths are sadder than one.

And 28 is sadder than two.

But there are limits. Really now, we've had enough.


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