Advances in Obituary Writing

An obituary is published after its subject’s death. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it’s written after that death. Obituary writers are known to give themselves head starts.

“Advances” are obituaries written beforehand. Then, when the inevitable occurs, all that remains is some quick updating. Margalit Fox, a former New York Times obituarist, explains that this is not without difficulty:

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it. The midcentury Timesman Alden Whitman, an obituary writer famous for sitting down with his subjects in advance, favored tender circumlocutions on the order of, “We’re updating your biographical file” and “This is for possible future use.” I have used both with a fair margin of success.


Fate being what it is, subjects of advances can outlive their authors. The New York Times has some acquaintance with this phenomenon:

Mel Gussow, a longtime critic and cultural reporter at The Times, had been dead for six years when his obituary of Ms. Taylor was published in 2011. Ms. Ross outlived the author of her obituary, Michael T. Kaufman, a distinguished foreign correspondent and editor, by more than seven years. And the obituary for James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name, was published more than 10 years after the death of its writer, Walter Sullivan.


And then there is this example of journalistic collegiality, offered by the Guardian. Godfrey Hodgson wrote the obituary for John Shirley, who died in 2018. Last month, Mr. Shirley – having done his advance work – returned the favor.