What’s the story?
As time was called on the year 2016, most reflections on a difficult year included a focus on how many famous people had died over the 12-month-period. And while the concentration of deaths across a single year led many to suggest that 2016 was in some way ‘cursed’, in fact we’ve simply moved into a new era in which we’re going to have to become used to mourning our heroes.
It started with David Bowie. Few people even realised that the veteran rock star had been ill when his publicist announced his death on January 10th 2016. The same went for Alan Rickman, the beloved English actor who passed away a few days later. And before the month had ended, the death of long-serving BBC presenter and National Treasure Terry Wogan had got the year off to a miserable start.
January wasn’t the end of it though, by a long way. As the months continued, the world’s obituary writers kept racking up overtime and cancelling all leave. Comedian Victoria Wood, musical icon Prince, boxer Muhammad Ali and Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin – just 27 – had all died by the middle of the year. By this point, many people had begun to realise the strangeness of what was happening. These deaths seemed to be occurring with a much greater frequency than our culture has ever experienced before.
And of course, as the year went on, the obituaries kept coming. Comedian Caroline Aherne, comedy genius Gene Wilder, and iconic singer Leonard Cohen all left fans reeling with grief. And finally in December, when singer George Michael and actress Carrie Fisher both died over the Christmas period, the phenomenon was confirmed: 2016 would always be known as the year all the celebrities died.
...Or will it? Many have pointed out that since it’s now around 50 years since the 1960s cultural revolution unleashed waves of famous entertainers on the world, it’s only natural that we’re now so regularly mourning well-known names. What we’re going to have to come to terms with is the idea that our heroes are not immortal – at 69 the deaths of Bowie and Rickman for example weren’t entirely out of line with average life expectancy. In fact, we can pretty confidently expect 2017 to be similarly full of celebrity deaths, as a mix of old age and hedonistic excess take their toll on another round of famous names. It’s a good time to be an obituary-writer; perhaps also an opportunistic moment to be the kind of people who talk about the offer of life after death.
What have others been saying?
Premier Christianity’s David Robertson wrote that there are ‘3 lessons our culture must learn’ from 2016’s apparent wave of celeb deaths.
As the year came to a close, outspoken US evangelist Franklin Graham told the Christian Post that “all celebrity deaths have one thing in common”. It’s quite a brilliant insight.
Perhaps more analytically, the BBC tried to explain why so many celebrities died in 2016; the basic answer being that there are far more celebrities entering their later years than ever before.
#1 – DEATH
Inevitably, the deaths of others lead us to consider our own mortality, and the Bible has a lot to say about the matter. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, he has become “the living one.” He says in Revelation 1:18: “I died and behold I am alive evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.” Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe in him (John 3 v 16), and spells out what that means for those fearful of death in John 14: 1-2: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” As Christians we should be confident about what our faith has to say about the culturally-significant topic of death: we essentially have the antidote.
#2 – BEING ‘KNOWN’
One of the definitive cultural ideas – and for many, ideals – is being ‘well known’; living a life or reaching a level of achievement (or even notoriety) at which we are widely recognised as ‘famous’. Although he’s probably the most famous man who ever lived, Jesus doesn’t subscribe to this ideal at all; instead urging his followers to embrace submission and the idea – as John the Baptist puts it – that “he must become greater, I must become less.” At the same time, the Bible offers a different idea of what it means to be “well-known”; Psalm 139 offers a vivid description of how God knew us even as he was “knitting us together” in the womb. Truly understanding the idea that God himself knows and values us (just a little lower than the heavenly beings) is the key to dealing with the kind of identity issues which lead to the thirst for fame.
Points for prayer
Pray for the families and friends of those who are mourned on a global scale, that they would still be allowed to grieve their personal loss.
Pray for fans who are currently mourning the deaths of their heroes, that they would be comforted, and have the chance to celebrate the lives of those who have influenced them.
Pray for those who are led to consider their own mortality as they consider the deaths of others, that they would be prepared to consider the claims of Jesus as the one who conquers death
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor of Youthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.