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Death assemblage

TedViagraResized.jpg“You will see the Ammonitico Rosso”, said my old Prof, Derek V Ager concluding his lecture on condensed pelagic deposits of the Jurassic, “in the floors of the Royal Society ... if you ever get that far.”.  I have since seen the facies there and in many other places, including Italy and, more surprisingly perhaps, in Poland – where an Italian geologist on the same excursion (who shall remain nameless) reflected quietly: “Good job we named it first in Italy.  Otherwise it would be unpronounceable.”

The Ammonitico Rosso facies forms on sediment-starved seamounts, receiving little terrigenous material but a lot of dead free-swimming animals whose shells rain out of the water column, forming a condensed death-assemblage.  I began to think about this as 2016 drew to a close.

The end of that year produced a death assemblage of its own, as celebrities from A A Gill to Z Z Gabor dropped seemingly like flies.  And the cry went up – “Oh 2016, when will you finish with killing off our favourite people?”.  Yet, as any journalist knows, apparent death-rate among celebrities always rises towards the end of the year.  The general public has a short memory and forgets this, so each year it seems to happen afresh.  But it is an annual phenomenon.

Why is this?  Real death rates do go up and down, and more people die in winter as a rule (there is a slight peak in hot summers too).  But the annual Christmas hecatomb of celebrities is mainly a preservation phenomenon, caused simply by lack of other news.

What this means is that celebrity deaths, which would otherwise be missed because of dilution, rise to the top of the news pile and achieve greater notice.  Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds dying within a day of one another, might make headlines at any time, but most others not.  Except at Christmas.  Minor earthquakes also appear to get more frequent then, for the same reason.

News at Christmas is a thin, condensed deposit.  For lack of other sediment, fossils make up the bulk.  The effect is, if anything, enhanced by social media - which have also created a new phenomenon of people dying more than once.  Some deaths are overlooked, and many more are forgotten.  So old obituaries, continually thrown back up by algorithms, appear to announce new deaths – and people who don’t read the date on the story spread the rumour. 

Jazz master Dave Brubeck, for example, suffered his second ‘death’, by Internet, in December 2016.  This time, 2016 was innocent.  He actually died on 5 December 2012 – along with another apparent rush to the grave that year.