Q. Dear (Kill) Bill, Oprah, Ellen, Richard Pryor, Belushi and, well Regis. How far in advance do you prepare the obit? And that lead-time is a function of what? -- Arnold Tracey
A. "Kill Bill": That's a new one. Not bad.
But: How far in advance. That's a good, tricky question. This is probably one of the only newspaper editing jobs in the country in which you have to think like an actuary. So age, yes; health, yes; external risk factors, yes (a well-known mobster might get one earlier in the game). But prominence is also a major consideration. We wouldn't necessarily wait for an ex-president of the United States to write his memoirs before assigning the "advance." We might jump on that one while he's in office, just in case.
But we also have to be mindful of not writing the obit prematurely. Mark Twain said something memorable about that, but that's not what I mean. I mean we don't necessarily want to write the advance obit while the subject is still in full flower, is still out there adding to his or her legacy, doing things, building things, making things. We'd rather write about them when their essential work — that which they'll be remembered for — is done. Otherwise the obit is likely to grow old and stale and require a rewrite 10 years down the road. Why bother now?
. . . We try to write as many as we can, but there are inevitably many we can't get to — or can't get to yet. So we have to approach the task as battlefield triage — tending to the most aged and the supremely important first, and then hoping the others can hang on a little longer until we can get to them.
So, readers, this question -- who is the youngest person for whom you figure the Times obit has already been prepared? Courtney Love? Andy Dick?