On Sept. 8 at 6:30 p.m. in London, the royal family announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died. Less than two hours later, the Guardian published a 7,000-word obituary.
That obituary was 10 years in the making.
“The Guardian — I suspect like other newspapers as the queen grew pretty old — decided that they better have an obituary ready for the day when it actually came to pass,” said Stephen Bates, the freelance journalist who wrote the obituary. “It’s taken longer than I think we expected at that stage.”
Many news organizations keep prewritten obituaries, known as “advance obituaries,” of influential figures on hand, ready to publish at a moment’s notice. The Washington Post, which has roughly 900 of these stories on file, updated their obituary on the queen when news broke that she was under medical supervision. By the time the royal family confirmed her death, the Post was ready. The obituary was published just one minute after the official announcement.
Newspapers didn’t always take this approach to obituaries, said Washington Post obituary editor Adam Bernstein. When he arrived at the desk in 1999, the Post treated many obituaries as daily stories, written after the subject had died. There was also a greater focus on local news with only very occasional stories about national or international deaths.
“But over the next 10 years, as the internet became where you want to break news as opposed to in the next day’s newspaper, the need to build up the advance obituaries bank became urgent,” Bernstein said.
A similar shift took place 30 years ago in British papers, said Bates. Obituaries used to be straightforward, “somewhat boring” reads that were written in a rush after a person’s death, he said. But editors realized that readers wanted a more well-rounded picture of a person’s life.
To get an advance obituary, one generally has to be a well-known public figure. John Pope, a freelance journalist based in New Orleans, said he looks for people who are notable and whose obituaries would require a lot of time to report. One example he pointed to was former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, who served in all three branches and levels of government.
“You can’t just have been a celebrity or politician or criminal or a Mardi Gras monarch. But there’s something extra — an X-factor,” Pope said. “It comes down to finding people who make a difference, who are worth the time and effort you put into this.”
There’s no formula for choosing people, said Hillel Italie, who oversees the Associated Press’ entertainment obituaries, which number around 300 to 400. Sometimes, it’s just “common sense” who gets one, he said, naming actor Sidney Poitier as an example. People with known health problems, like singer Olivia Newton-John, are also obvious candidates.
Despite their best efforts, outlets are sometimes caught off guard. Generally, this happens when someone dies unexpectedly at a young age, Italie said, like actors Heath Ledger and Chadwick Boseman or NBA player Kobe Bryant.
“I am constantly scared about who we don’t have ready,” said Bernstein. Former solicitor general Kenneth Starr was one such person. “He had actually been on our radar, but we just didn’t have the staffing to handle it in time.”
Capturing a person’s life is much easier when writers aren’t working under tight deadlines. That becomes even more true at places like the Post, where obituaries are handled by a four-person desk and a team of freelancers who may not be familiar with the fields in which their subjects worked. But even when reporters take on obituaries about people they have covered, the research process is intense. There are experts to talk to, biographies and memoirs to read, clips to review and old interviews to listen to.
Writing an advance obituary also provides the unique opportunity to interview the subject and their friends and family before they die. Some reporters, like Bates and Bernstein, generally avoid doing this.
“I think the priority is to give a sort of an independent assessment of a person’s life rather than through the perspective of one of their close friends or associates, where it’s likely to be much more personal and maybe much more skewed,” Bates said.
Others take a different approach. Pope said that it doesn’t happen often, but if a subject approaches him or his editor first, he’ll interview them. People who are already accustomed to dealing with the media are generally more comfortable with the idea of being interviewed for their own obituary, he said.
“Without that level of comfort, it’s like a hostage video that betrays nothing. It’s just the deer-in-headlights thing where they really are not revealing anything about themselves,” Pope said. “It’s hard to sit across the table from a person and get the person to talk in past tense.”
Some jump at the idea of talking to their obituary writer. During one interview with a New York Times reporter, the actress Bette Davis reportedly asked if he was questioning her for her obituary. After he said yes, she retrieved some martinis and said, “In that case, why don’t we get rid of this silly tea and have a drink?”
A similar exchange took place between former U.K. Prime Minister Anthony Eden and former New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman. Eden initially refused to be interviewed, but once he realized the piece wouldn’t run until he was dead, he brightened, according to Whitman. “In that case,” Eden reportedly said, “do come and have tea with me at the House of Lords.”
Not everyone reacts positively. One time, while Pope was working on an advance obituary for a person who he had heard was ill, the subject — a “man whom I shall not name, a horrible person,” Pope said — got wind of what he was doing.
“He sent me a letter saying, ‘I’ve told all my friends not to talk to you,’” Pope said. “And the letter was so vitriolic, I was tempted to mail it to him and say, ‘Dear ____, someone’s using your name and sent this to me. I thought you’d want to know.’ I did not do that, but I wish I had.”
Kay Powell, who used to run The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s obituary department and is now a freelancer, said she has received requests from people across the country asking her to write obituaries for themselves or their family members. These requests usually give her the chance to get the subject’s voice in the piece, making it a better read.
After one man asked her to write his obituary but was reluctant to open up, she had to remind him of the purpose of their interview.
“Let me tell you something. You’re doing this not only for people who know you right now who will read it when you die; you are doing it for your grandchildren and you’re doing it for all your great grandchildren to come,” Powell told him. “This will be available for generations to your family to get to know you, not just about what you did like a resume, but about your personality.”
Later, when the man’s wife and daughter complained about something that he was working on that would go in the obituary, he repeated Powell’s reminder to them.
“He said, ‘I’m not doing this for you! I’m doing this for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren!’” she recounted.
Because obituaries can be written years in advance, reporters must keep them updated if the subject makes news. Bates, who used to serve as the Guardian’s religious affairs and royal correspondent, said he has roughly 40 to 50 advance obituaries of members of the royal family and European politicians that he tries to update once or twice a year. Depending on the subject, those updates might come more frequently.
“After Boris Johnson became prime minister, I routinely wrote his obituary even though he’s much younger than I am,” Bates said. He updated the obituary when Johnson was hospitalized with COVID-19 and once more when he was moved into intensive care. “And then he recovered, of course, and I didn’t need to update the obituary again. But now that he’s left office, I certainly will be doing that one as well.”
Sometimes, a subject will do something that reshapes their legacy and requires a reporter to make substantial revisions to their obituary. For decades, Phil Spector was known for his work as a music producer and songwriter. The Associated Press had to update his obituary after he was convicted of murder, Italie said.
There have also been cases where a subject outlives their obituary writer. The Associated Press’ obituary for the queen has three bylines and credits two additional reporters, Gregory Katz and Robert Barr, who are now dead.
“My joke is, a lot of reporters are more productive in death,” Bernstein said.
Occasionally, an advance obituary is mistakenly published before a person’s death. In 2020, Radio France Internationale accidentally ran 100 advance obituaries, including one for the queen. There have been so many premature obituaries that Wikipedia keeps a list documenting them, and in the hours before the queen’s death, satire site The Onion poked fun at this phenomenon.
Though some news organizations, especially national outlets, have invested more resources into advance obituaries in recent years, others have had to cut back. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, eliminated its obituary department in 2009 (though it continues to publish obituaries). Similarly, the Los Angeles Times cut its formal obituary desk several years ago, although it now has an obituaries editor. These changes have coincided with a national trend in staff reductions at local papers.
“I think obituaries are the ultimate accountability story,” Bernstein said. “We hold people to account for how they live their lives — not in a judgmental way always, but in a revealing way that should honestly reflect the impact that they had for better or for worse.”