(Image by Chris Barker)
One year ago today, I was in Amboise, France, as part of the trip of a lifetime around Europe with my wife and children. Upon waking that rainy, gloomy winter’s day, I absent-mindedly checked my Twitter timeline, and was snapped out of my daze when I read the shocking news that David Bowie had sadly passed away, after turning 69 just a couple of days previous.
It turned out to be a day filled with death. Our itinerary for the day began with a visit to Château du Clos Lucé, a small château that is famous for being the residence of Leonardo da Vinci in his final years – with one of the main ‘attractions’ being a viewing of the actual bed that the great Master was lying in when he took his final breath.
From Amboise we then drove to our next stay, an absolutely wonderful historical chateau not far from Rennes that we booked through AirBnB. On arrival, however, we were met not by the owner, but instead by their neighbour. As it turns out, the owner’s husband had died that very day after suffering a heart attack, and yet she had amazingly taken the time and consideration to organise for her neighbour to come and greet us and make sure we settled into the place comfortably.
This ‘day of death’ finished with a bang as well – as we were eating dinner in the dining room of the old chateau that night, my wife suddenly swung her head around to look behind us. Nothing was there, despite, she recounted, the fact that she had seen someone walk behind us in the reflection from the window.
A year on, and it turns out not to have been so much a ‘death day’, but an entire year. From Bowie, to the massive loss of Prince in April, through to George Michael and Carrie Fisher at year’s end – and a cavalcade of departed stars and personalities in between – 2016 as serial killer became a meme that many could relate to, along with the fervent hope that 2017 would be better.
The thing is though, I’m not sure that’s going to be the case. In actual fact, I think 2016 might just be the herald for a new period that I (perhaps hyperbolically) refer to as the ‘Great Dying’.
The ‘Great Dying’ arises from the confluence of three factors:
- In the 1950s and 60s the amount of ‘famous people’ increased dramatically with the advent of television, ‘pop’ music and mass-marketed professional sport. People who became stars at a yound age in those and following decades are now 60 to 90 years of age.
- Furthermore, the pressures of reaching and maintaining that celebrity status – especially in the last few decades, have pushed some performers and sportsmen to the limits physically and psychologically. Witness for instance the painkillers required by Michael Jackson and Prince, which ultimately resulted in their premature deaths. And both living with that celebrity status, and the emotional valley of slipping from that status, also have their deleterious effects on the human psyche and body. So there will always be a portion of stars who die at an earlier age than expected.
- Lastly, in the modern era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, we are hyper-aware of every celebrity’s passing and ‘grieve’ as a community when that happens, sharing thoughts, quotes and tributes, and meditating on that person’s passing more thoroughly than in the past.
Without wishing to start a dead pool, to illustrate point one consider the following list of movie stars who are house-hold names: Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery are 86; James Earl Jones and William Shatner are 85; Judi Dench and Brigitte Bardot are 82; Donald Sutherland is 81 and Robert Redford is 80; Morgan Freeman, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson are 79. In music, the (surviving members of) The Beatles, Stones and Led Zep are in their 70s, while Tina Turner is 77 and Aretha Franklin is 74. For the SF&F geeks out there, Ursula Le Guin is 87; Tom Baker is 82; Ian McKellen is 77 and Patrick Stewart is 76; Ridley Scott is 79. Anthony Hopkins is 79; Al Pacino is 76; Harrison Ford is 74; De Niro is 73. David Attenborough is 90.
That’s just a quick listing off the top of my head, so you can only imagine how many well-known people are in what would be expected to be the final decade or two of their lives. And that doesn’t include all those who might pop off earlier than expected, from cancer, heart attack, accident, suicide or other assorted causes (I’ve personally almost checked out after being stung by a wasp, of all things). This is perhaps what made 2016 seem so shocking – losing the likes of David Bowie at 69, Carrie Fisher at 60, Prince at 57, George Michael at 53 and Phife Dawg at 45. But given the number of celebrities out there, is this the new normal?
The Great Dying has begun. So it might be about time we addressed our in-built aversion to dealing with death and loss head-on.