A number of friends have slid behind the crematorium curtain. Was it something I said?

Whatever happened to long illnesses? I could be mixing in the wrong circles, but it's impossible not to notice an alarming increase in the number of people who are happily going about their business and then, before you can say "Pastor Niederhoffer", are slip-sliding away behind the crematorium curtain.

Consider Dave Fleming. We all got to know Dave pretty well after he gave up his lectureship in rat psychology at Sheffield and set up a fast-moving market research business in Islington. If, for example, you wanted to know the immediate reaction of young shoppers to the disappearance of C&A, Dave could guarantee to have the results on your desk within 24 hours, even if it meant polling young clubbers at four in the morning. His unapologetic attitude towards the superficiality of his research was perfectly captured by his decision to call the company Straw Poll.

There was, I suppose, a certain fearful symmetry about Geoff's news that this apostle of the instantaneous had himself been struck down last week in less time than it takes to tick "Mostly Agree" on the average questionnaire. One moment he was happily sitting in a Charlotte Street restaurant, talking with a bunch of colleagues about statistical probability, and the next he was slumped over the table having breathed his last: 100 per cent dead.

It was the same with Tom Butler back in March. He was also enjoying a second lease of life as a psycho-therapist after 30 years in the freight-forwarding business. Sally, who'd gone to him for counselling after her bout of anxiety attacks in the Maldives, told us that he'd been most professional, even if she had been mildly disturbed that, while she remained seated for the therapeutic session, Tom had been forced, because of a recurrent lower-back condition, to lie prostrate on the floor with his head resting on several volumes of Freud's Collected Works /I>.

But then, on the morning that Sally was setting off for her final session, Tom's wife rang to say that she'd left him on the bedroom floor that morning, going through his usual Pilates exercises, and returned to find him scrunched up in the corner like a discarded duvet. At first, she'd assumed that his posture and breathless immobility were a new exercise. Only when she reappeared with the morning brioche did she realise with the help of a vanity mirror that poor Tom was not in any position to follow his manual's most repetitive exercise instruction. He no longer had any breath to hold.

Even by Straw Poll's standards of significance, this hardly represents an adequate sample. But when you add Danny Oldman (found dead in the lavatory of an early-morning Eurostar) and Tim Phillips (discovered at the bottom of a Hertfordshire municipal swimming pool by a chlorine superintendent), it's hard not to sense a pattern. All of the sample were under 65, in relatively good health, and all expired when, in the words of the humanist "vicar" we hired to see three of them off at Crouch End crematorium, "they had the rest of their lives before them".

I have one further concern. All of the departed were also present at my party last September, when we played a game of Paradoxical Questions. Sally had come up with what looked like the winner ("Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?"), but I'd pulled the crowd back on my side with "Why does anyone ever get into their deathbed?" I hardly expected at the time that quite so many close friends were about to regard this less as a paradox than a negative injunction.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich