Approximately 55.3 million people die each year. This natural and necessary part of the life cycle frees up room and resources on the planet for the 131.4 million new arrivals over that same period.
Ironically, one personal loss weighs on us much more heavily than does this enormous number. Naturally, we feel the passing of someone who has touched us in some way more acutely than the loss in toto.
The media do not alert us each time one of the millions pass, except in the case of the famous. When a celebrity or historical figure dies, the news reports that we’ve lost the individual, as if we just had coffee with them. And sometimes it feels that way. Why, then, do we lament so deeply the death of someone we’ve never even met?
The large number of such passings this year got me thinking about this phenomenon. For me, there are two reasons that the loss of the well known affects me more than that of the anonymous:
- The threads of these figures’ accomplishments are interwoven with our own lives. Their unraveling creates a little snag in our fabric.
- That pull reminds us of our own individual mortality and the ephemeral nature of each generation.
Some of the fallen icons were imposing: Muhammed Ali, John Glenn, Arnold Palmer, and Prince, for instance. Known worldwide, their achievements in the ring, in space, on the golf course, and in recordings shaped history. Some, perhaps not quite global figures, still spent a lot of time in our homes: Florence Henderson, Patty Duke, and Garry Shandling, for example.
I listened to Emerson Lake & Palmer, know to us as ELP, at high school parties and through my clunky headphones while studying: “Ooooh, what a lucky man he was.” Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery played in heavy rotation while my friends and I drank snuck-in, watery beer in dark basements below black-lit neon posters. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake both died this year, leaving only drummer Carl Palmer as the surviving member of that trio.
I grew up with Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and all of David Bowie’s other alter egos as he went through his ch-ch-ch-changes, spinning his songs on a turntable during my radio show at WRMC-FM as a Middlebury College DJ. I watched him as The Man Who Fell to Earth. His voice haunted me in the soundtracks of Cat People and Moulin Rouge. As unassuming as he was, Bowie heavily influenced the evolution of modern music right up to his death.
MTV debuted the year I graduated from college, and I watched it avidly until it morphed from music television to ridiculous reality television. Wham woke me up before I went-went. I danced along in big shoulder pads as George Michael made tight jeans, white T, and black leather jacket and boots an 80s uniform. And watched that same iconic jacket go up in flames as Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford lip-synced on the sultry Freedom video. He rocked the five o’clock shadow long before it became hipster-popular. I’d heard that he was working on new material and a Wham documentary recently. I hope we get to hear and see some of it.
I’ve had a crush on Alan Rickman since he played the soft-spoken scary villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. The classically trained Royal Shakespeare Company actor portrayed my favorite Harry Potter character, Severus Snape, where that same soft/stern voice struck terror in the hearts of Hogwarts students. And I even adored him as the cheating Harry in Love Actually. I doubt anyone will have his power to charm and chill us simultaneously as he did.
The cliché statement that they’re “gone too soon” applies to them and many others who died this year. I’m not certain what “not too soon” would mean exactly, and who is the arbiter of appropriately timed death, but when the artists feel like peers, it seems too soon to me. More and more of those who pass are from my generation than from my parents’ or grandparents’ – eras that already seemed bygone to me. This is my era, and I’m not ready for it to be bygone yet.