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Celebrity deaths had heavy impact in 2009

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
  • There seemed to be an inordinate amount of celeb deaths in 2009
  • The passing of stars ranging from actors to athletes made headlines
  • Journalist says overwhelming attention paid to the deaths heightens perception of amount

(CNN) -- The recent passing of actress Brittany Murphy adds another high-profile name to the list of those who have died in 2009.

The year seems to have been filled with an inordinate amount of high-profile deaths -- some even on the same day.

Among those who passed: Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Natasha Richardson, Bea Arthur, Dom DeLuise, Karl Malden, David Carradine, Patrick Swayze, John Hughes, Ed McMahon, Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt.

Authors John Updike, Frank McCourt and Dominick Dunne died, as did blues legend Koko Taylor, Ventures guitarist Bob Bogle, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary, guitar innovator Les Paul and Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein.

In sports, NFL players Steve McNair and Chris Henry died as did veteran basketball coach Chuck Daly.The politcal world mourned the loss of Sen. Edward Kennedy, and former U.S. Housing Secretary Jack Kemp.

Even celebrity pitch personalities weren't immune as 2009 also saw the passing of Oxiclean pitchman Billy Mays and Gidget, the chihuahua best known for hawking Taco Bell.

But was 2009 any more notable for celebrity deaths than other years? Or, in our hyper-caffeinated, overly Twittered culture, is there simply more awareness?

Adam Bernstein, editor for The Washington Post's obituary section, believes the latter. He said he believes the perception of the mass mortality of stars is driven by the overwhelming amount of attention paid to the deaths of even minor celebrities.

"[Brittany Murphy] is far from the most accomplished of actresses, but because she has attracted a following -- mostly from younger people who are probably shocked, of course, at her death at the age of 32 -- it becomes a big deal online," he said. "And that drives a lot of attention from newspapers, including ours, which went nuts with her death."

Social networking sites like Twitter are helping to drive the interest, Bernstein said, as people tweet about it and "the immediacy of the death suddenly becomes hot ratings online."

Bernstein also dismisses the so-called "rule of three," the old guideline that high-profile deaths come in that grouping. That's an urban legend, he said, an idea that arises from humans' determination to seek patterns in randomness.

"The Washington Post writes about nearly everyone who dies in the D.C. area and no one seems to get really alarmed when three Army colonels go in a week," he said. "People like to spot trends in the chaos of life and death is no different."

In the end -- literally, in this case -- all those of us who watch and wait can do is draw a little dark humor from the inevitable. That seemed particularly true in 2009, when levity seemed to be the only response to what, at times, seemed a never-ending stream of obituaries.

As The New York Times' David Carr pointed out on Twitter, noting that Dunne's death was being overshadowed by Ted Kennedy's (which happened the same day), "Dominick Dunne wld be pissed he died on same day as Ted Kennedy and had to share ... a piece of work, but fun as hell."