Friday, June 26, 2009

Dead like Me

The passing on June 25 of pop star Michael Jackson proved once again that death can be a good career move. Millions of his CDs that had been collecting dust on music store shelves were snapped up in minutes, no doubt retiring much of the debt his estate has inherited.

One of the reasons for that resurgence of popularity, no doubt, was the relentless media reporting of his death, including lengthy video biographies and samples of his music.

But wait, many fans said. How did television and cable networks come up with the filmed obituaries mere seconds after he died? My daughter Elita logged a Facebook entry expressing her suspicion that "media must have had a secret 'for when Michael Jackson dies' video tribute for years." "OMG," several of her friends logged back, apparently appalled. "I think you're right."

In point of fact, such tributes to Jackson did exist and, as Elita perceived, media outlets had been poised for years to release them. Similar tributes were in the can for Ed McMahon and Farrah Faucette and, you can be sure, have been prepared for celebrities still warm. If, God forbid, the Olsen twins stepped in front of a bus, every television in Walmart would be showing their faces before the tires stopped spinning.

Every media outlet I know has a prehumous obit file so staff writers won't have to dig all night for facts and sources if the police chief can't be heimliched in time.

Maccabre as it may seem, I said, joining Elita's Facebook chain, even church news offices have files of obituaries of church leaders still breathing. I was particularly proud, I said, of one I wrote for Billy Graham three years ago. (I mention Billy because I know he's been around long enough to know his obituaries have been written, polished, and set in type, waiting for the time and date to be inserted.)

At this point son-in-law Matt joined the chain from Olympia: "Wouldn't it be great," he asked, "if you could just recycle old obits. Think of the time you'd save. 'Billy Graham, composer of such pop hits as Thriller and Billie Jean, and latter day apostle of crotch-grabbing greatness, wowed audiences in packed stadiums the world around ...'"

Sounds good to me, Matt. Pre-death obits are, after all, a time-saving device in the age of instant communication. The only problem with keeping them loaded and cocked in your computer is the danger of releasing them too soon, as when the reports would be, in Mark Twain style, exagerrated. I remember an instance in which the death of the mother of a church bureaucrat was prematurely reported, requiring a retraction reporting she was no longer dead. Sure, the story has a familiar ring to it, but no one in the church expects to see it more than once.

In the halcyon days of typewriters and mimeographed press releases, time seemed to move slower and the risk of premature obits was not as great. On the contrary, sometimes days and weeks passed before the obit saw the light of day.

In the fall of 1972, former President Harry Truman -- a Baptist -- lay dying. My editor in the American Baptist Division of Communication, Dr. Frank Sharp, asked me to write an obituary of the former president that quoted notable Baptists. It seemed as if Mr. Truman's passing was imminent so I acted quickly. I called Harold Stassen, a prominent American Baptist who had once been a serious contender for Mr. Truman's job. Mr. Stassen immediately agreed and the next day I received a nice tribute written in Stassen's own hand on lined yellow paper. I typed the quote into the story and waited. And waited.

President Truman lingered for weeks and after a while the obituary sank deeper in the pile of papers on my desk. By late December, Truman's illness had disappeared from the papers and we closed the American Baptist offices for Christmas.

I don't remember what I did Christmas Day 1972, but I remember December 26. I was awaked at home by a phone call. The baritone voice that never needed amplification was Stassen's. The New York Times had just called him for a statement.

"Truman's dead," Stassen rumbled. "Where's the darn obit?" (He really said darn. That's the way he talked. He was a Christian gentleman and, besides, his decible level didn't require cussing.)

I drove quickly to the office to pull the obit out of the pile and called the impatient Times obituary editor and read it to him over the phone. Truman's death, of course, made the front page. I don't remember if they quoted Stassen or not. But we tried.

When Michael Jackson died, times had changed. His obituary was already written, filed and ready to go. No one had to lose sleep or drive to the office to pull it out of a dusty file. Those days are gone forever. And I, for one, don't miss them.

There are, of course, celebrities and politicians of prominence that I hope will be around for many years, and it is not pleasant to remember that their obituaries have been written, too. It's a consequence of the age of instant media. It's fueled by our need for instant intellectual gratification, the same impulse that has turned "Google" into a verb.

It is a little unnerving to spend hours documenting a person's death years before it happens, but perhaps there's an up side to that. Motivational speakers make fortunes encouraging us to live each day as if it were our last. Maybe the way to do that is to add a line or two each day to our prehumous obits. And, of course, remember to leave the obits where an editor can find them.


  1. Phil,
    Susan and I have been speculating on the next prominent celebrity to die. If I were in the entertainment business I'd be very nervous.

    After all,these things come in threes. Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Michael Jackson. Here in Philadelphia we would add the two popular sportscasters we lost recently, Harry Kalas and Gary Pappa. There is another death out there.

    I really felt sorry for Farrah. We were hearing of her imminent death from a particulary type of debilitating cancer for days. Barbara Walters interviewed Ryan O'Neal said he still wanted to marry her before she died. A tragic figure in a tragic situation. Here story, of course, was blown off the front page by the Jackson story.

    Jackson was his own tragedy. I know that as a Christian I am not supposed to judge but it is hard to feel quite as sorry for him and his family as it is for Farrah and her family. I don't know, I'm just saying.


  2. "I remember an instance in which the death of the mother of a church bureaucrat was prematurely reported, requiring a retraction reporting she was no longer dead..."

    Ah yes, I remember it well. The Ted Baxter-era of the Office of Communication.