Obituary Writers Die, Too

The web was fascinated to see Elizabeth Taylor outlive her obituary writer

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It's well-known at this point that newspapers often write obituaries before their subjects die. It makes sense, then, that the occasional obituary writer--maybe one at the end of a long and illustrious career in arts criticism--might die himself before the pre-penned obituary is published. That's what happened yesterday with Elizabeth Taylor's obituary in The New York Times--writer Mel Gussow died in 2005--yet the shock and ensuing giggles reverberated around the web.

"The NYT Has Been Waiting For Elizabeth Taylor To Die Since At Least 2005," said a humorous though also less charitable headline at Business Insider. Numerous other publications picked up the Gussow story, including The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, AOL, and Yahoo, despite Gussow's death being no particular secret: the Times itself ran a note at the bottom of the article stating that "Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005."

The shock expressed whenever the custom of pre-writing obituaries comes up seems to never fade. The AP caught some flack when the news came out that they had an obituary written for the 26-year-old Britney Spears in 2008. In 2003, CNN notoriously published the obituaries of seven world figures including Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, and Nelson Mandela by accident. Bloomberg financial newswire accidentaly published Steve Jobs's obituary in 2008, which was quickly taken down. "Scandalous" reports later emerged that some media outlets had prepared Lindsay Lohan's obituary in 2010.

The fact that the Times' Liz Taylor obituary was pre-written was highlighted by the fact that Gussow was a few years dead. But it's not even the first time that this has happened: Bob Hope's 2003 obituary in The New York Times was written by Vincent Canby, a longtime film critic for the paper who himself had died in 2000. Philadelphia Inquirer obituary writer Gayle Ronan Sims died two months before an obituary she had written of Ed McMahon was published in June 2009 for the paper.
Many responses to the Times at least expressed some humor. "Bottom Line: You Don’t Want to Appear Prominently in Any Future Mel Gussow Articles," read the headline of one tumblr post. Nate Chinen, an contributor to the Times  tweeted: "it must be every icon's dream to outlive her obituary writer." Maybe it's a little strange and uncomfortable--but it's a well known fact about the nature of the business and ultimately motivated by a higher purpose. Despite the problems of pre-writing these pieces--NBC, for example, apparently ran an out-of-date video about Taylor, claiming she was 77 instead of 79 and had nine children instead of ten--"you would not want to write Hugh Hefner's obituary on deadline," Jon Thurber, a Los Angeles Times editor told Editor & Publisher a few years ago. Nor, from the other end of the matter, would you want to prevent elderly, established writers with decades-long careers in the arts from writing your obituaries.
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