There’s something about the news business you may not have realized. Editors at newspapers, TV stations and websites regularly prepare obituaries for celebrities well in advance, to make it possible to speedily publish a complete recap of their life if they suddenly pass away.
While that’s not so shocking about the famous in later life, some are raising eyebrows after word leaked out that one major press agency has written a final column on a well-known figure you might expect would be around for a while – Britney Spears.
The Associated Press has asked staff members to prepare the Brit obit because of her wild behaviour and drug use, which they believe puts her in danger of succumbing, even at the tender age of 26. The news that the column even exists has sparked widespread debate about how soon is too soon to prepare a final farewell for the famous and still-living.
“It’s a complex issue, a complex debate,” agrees Washington Post reporter Adam Bernstein, who regularly writes obituaries. “It’s unclear to what degree somebody really is on the edge. So do you spend the time to put something together when you’re wondering whether it will run now or 70 years from now?
“Somebody like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Amy Winehouse, you could arguably put something together,” he calculates.
But while many find the practice somewhat odious, one Hollywood publicist suggests the worldwide web has made the need for speed all the greater. Last year’s sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith at age 39 caught many agencies by surprise and forced them to take a second look at their policies on early obits.
“Technology makes all this stuff much more present in the consciousness of the culture,” suggests Michael Levine, who once handled publicity for Michael Jackson. “There’s much more pressure to get the news out right now. You distribute or you die.”
Especially if someone else does.
This ghoulish guessing game about pre-prepared death notices is nothing new. Names like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi and Chris Farley have all taken editors by surprise. And some admit it’s a fine line on when to ask for a story that will be held ‘just in case.’
People like Robert Downey Jr. and Courtney Love were prime examples of potential died-too-young subjects, but both appear to have turned their lives around.
The Los Angeles Times has some 400 prepared obits on hand, although obituary editor Jon Thurber admits most of the subjects are substantially older than Spears. The paper has yet to make up her notice, but he agrees it’s a judgment call they sometimes get wrong.
“Who in the ’60s would have thought Keith Richards would have outlasted John Denver?” he wonders.