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.


Revolutionary Photographers

This image of Che, noble and defiant, with tilted beret and flowing locks, rapidly spread to T-shirts and album covers, and was soon taken up by advertisers targeting youth…


According to his Guardian obituary, photographer Alberto Korda was living “an expensive playboy lifestyle” in Havana when he found a new calling:

[H]is life was transformed by the Cuban revolution of 1959. On an assignment in the countryside soon after the guerrillas defeated the dictator Batista, he encountered such poverty that he was converted to the revolutionary cause. He began to follow the new Cuban leaders around, offering his photos to the newspaper Revolución, whose offices were close to his studios.

He spent 10 years as Fidel Castro’s official photographer, using his skills to humanise the revolutionary leader’s image in off-duty scenes – sharing moments with Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, or confronting a caged tiger at the New York Zoo.

It was while on an assignment for Revolución in 1960 that Korda took the famous photo of Che…

Che Guevara was a Marxist revolutionary who fought in Cuba, the Congo, and Bolivia. One morning Korda snapped his photo at a memorial service. It was to become one of the most reproduced images in history. Korda, who gave the photograph away as a gift, would earn no money from it.


Photo credit: Graffiti in Bergen, Norway, of Che Guevara wearing his iconic ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ photograph. Sveter, January 2009 via Wikimedia Commons


“Almost every major event that shaped our modern world had 10, 15 well-known photographers who documented it. In this massive event in China there was only Li…


In 1966, Mao Zedong began a catastrophic decade known as the Cultural Revolution.  One newspaper photographer in the northeast of China, Li Zhensheng, played a crucial historical role. His Washington Post obituary explains:

The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao to re-inject proletarian Communist fervor into his flagging national project, sent tens of millions of young zealots onto China’s streets. They staged public show trials, beatings, criticism sessions and “home raids” of bureaucrats and intellectuals. They turned on their teachers, co-workers, friends and parents. The turmoil, which Mao initiated to assert his authority and purge political rivals, is estimated to have caused 1.5 million deaths, many by suicide.

Working during that era as a state newspaper photographer, Mr. Li defied instructions to destroy negatives that contradicted official propaganda. He stored 30,000 negatives under his floorboards, waiting for the right moment to release them.

Li documented these horrors and, like many of his countrymen, was swept up by them: he spent two years in a re-education camp.

The Cultural Revolution ended only after Mao’s death in 1976. It remains a sensitive topic in China, and despite its enormity, there are relatively few publicly available photographs.

Li, after emigrating to the United States, was able to publish his photographs in 2003.

“Terrible things happened. We have a responsibility to speak about them. We must speak about them.”


The Turkey Handlers


Thanksgiving Menu, George Elbert Burr, Smithsonian American Art Museum


Americans eat over two hundred million turkeys a year. Preparing them for purchase is hard, often dangerous, work, and Willie Levi did it for decades. His obituary, in The Economist, describes his labor:

Increasingly he was yelled at, called lazy, and told that he should get off his black butt and lift weights. Punishments came thick and fast: stand in the corner, go to your room, no TV, walk round the gym till supper time. The schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was overrun with mice and roaches, which fell from the ceiling as he ate. Mould grew on his clothes. He broke his kneecap, but had to work on. Two men ran away, and one of them was found frozen dead in a ditch; for a time the building was padlocked.

Mr. Levi, who was mentally disabled, “went on with the work. It was a long way back home, and possibly no one would know him any more.” He worked twelve-hour days and received $65 a month.

It was not until 2009 that a state social worker went into the schoolhouse, found them all in the stinking rubbish, and rescued them… For Willie Levi, rescue was like a holiday. They went to the Super 8 Motel, slept in clean beds and had waffles for breakfast. From now on, he would be protected. He wouldn’t have to work with turkeys any more. He certainly wouldn’t eat them, ever again.

Mr. Levi died in April of the coronavirus.




Americans eat close to fifty million turkeys on Thanksgiving alone. Preparing them for the table, however, doesn’t always go smoothly. Every year, Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line receives over a hundred thousand calls. Phyllis Larson handled many of them:

One caller told her “I followed the directions but the turkey is blue.” Turned out, they left the blue plastic seal on the bird.

On Thanksgiving Day, she would field calls from hosts and hostesses who said they were expecting a big crowd, but they hadn’t gotten around to removing the turkey from the freezer.

Ms. Larson was a home economics teacher and an excellent cook, but, as her Chicago Sun-Times obituary notes, “perhaps her biggest skill was in assuring frazzled callers their guests were going to be happy and the holidays would be fine.”


The Literacy Interventionists

The result of my own study of the question, What is the best gift which can be given to a community? is that a free library occupies the first place, provided the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution…

– Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth


Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy helped build the public library infrastructure of the United States. He insisted, however, that his money not pay for books. Carnegie expected each community to stock the shelves.

Todd Bol was similarly inspired. As his Washington Post obituary explains:

He had an abundance of books, a weathered garage door in need of repair and an abiding sadness that persisted months after the death of his mother, a schoolteacher … And so, in what he later described as “a spiritual gesture” to his late mother, June, Todd Bol set to work one day in 2009.

Since Carnegie had built 2,509 libraries, Mr. Bol aimed at topping that number by one. Today there are over 100,000:

There are now Little Free Libraries in all 50 states and in 88 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Ghana, Japan and the Netherlands. They stand inside Los Angeles police stations and at New York City subway stops, at prisons in Wisconsin and hospitals in Ireland, at a refu­gee camp in Uganda and a schoolyard in South Sudan. Inside each book exchange are about 20 to 100 volumes, an ever-rotating selection of self-help guides, romance novels, thrillers, how-to manuals, children’s books, cookbooks, magazines and whatever else a community decides to donate.



A literacy interventionist works with students who need extra help reading and writing. Literacy intervention is what Gerard Benson did for society. His obituary in the Independent describes his efforts:

…the poet Gerard Benson was “discovered” in the Sixties as a member of The Barrow Poets, who performed everything from Shakespeare and Milton to limericks and risqué ballads everywhere – from the back rooms of pubs to BBC’s Late Night Line-Up, around the country and in Europe and the US.

The Barrow Poets had a top ten hit in Australia with a performance of this song. Their phonological awareness would impress any literacy interventionist.

Mr. Benson also helped introduce poetry to the daily commute: since 1986, passengers on the London Underground have been reading poems posted in subway cars. Public transportation systems all over the world now feature poetry.

The Unfortunates


In 1961, Vivian Nicholson worked in a licorice factory in England. Her husband was a miner. Between them, they made 9 pounds a week. After a series of lucky bets on soccer games, they won today’s equivalent of 4.5 million dollars.

Thus began, according to her New York Times obituary, “a cautionary fable worthy of Aesop: Mr. Nicholson was killed a few years later at the wheel of the powder-blue Jaguar he had bought with the prize money; Mrs. Nicholson wound up nearly destitute.”

Decades after winning the money – during which Mrs. Nicholson lost not only her fortune, but her friends, and subsequent husbands – she reflected back on the days before her big win:

Before that, Keith and I used to have five cigarettes to last us all week. So he would have a drag and then give it to me and I would have a drag, and I’d not eat much at dinner because we couldn’t afford it. Sharing cigarettes, just holding one another and loving one another. That was when I had everything.




Andrew “Jack” Whittaker Jr. was a millionaire before he even won the lottery, having built his wealth through hard work. Then, one Christmas Day, he won the lottery. Two years later, the Washington Post published this profile: “He Won Powerball’s $314 Million Jackpot. It Ruined His Life.”

When he died in June, his AP obituary recounted the misery that followed:

[H]e quickly fell victim to scandals, lawsuits and personal setbacks as he endured constant requests for money, leaving him unable to trust others. Several times, he was quoted as saying he wished he had torn up the ticket.

His wife left him. A friend of his drug-addicted granddaughter was found dead at his home in 2004. Three months later, his 17-year-old granddaughter was gone, too. His daughter, Ginger Whittaker Bragg, died in 2009 at age 42 after struggling for years with cancer. And in 2016, he lost a Virginia home to a fire.


It is a truism that money can’t buy happiness. There’s also a popular conception that winning the lottery doesn’t increase happiness. That’s debatable, however: this recent analysis of lottery winners finds “having more money makes people less stressed and more satisfied with their life.”

Still, as Aesop concluded in  The Tortoise and the Eagle: “If men had all they wished, they would be often ruined.”