Anne Heche died on Friday, according to her hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Or, She died on Sunday, according to the New York Times and others.
Between those dates, the 53-year-old actress was in a state of deadly ambiguity that challenged the media to analyze a legal, even philosophical question: when did someone really die?
Heche’s family revealed that she had died of brain dead last week after a car accident on August 5. This led some news organizations to report on her death, based on a reading of a California law. “An individual who has suffered … the irreversible cessation of all function of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead,” the statute says.
But Heche was kept alive for another two days so that her organs could be retrieved for donation. When Heche’s press secretary confirmed that her life support had been withdrawn on Sunday night, the media published a new series of reports reporting her death.
Anne Heche attends the premiere of the film “The Tender Bar” at the TLC Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, California, the United States on December 12, 2021. REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci (Aude Guerrucci/Migration)
This is not the first time that the death of a celebrity has been accompanied by public confusion. But Heche’s case was particularly unusual, as the date of her death hinged on conflicting definitions of what it means to be dead.
Why did the media declare Anne Heche dead twice?
By all accounts, Heche was in serious condition Friday morning, a week after she crashed a Mini Cooper into a Los Angeles home, setting them both on fire. With no apparent brain activity, she was kept alive pending an evaluation of her organs.
However, TMZ, the entertainment news website that is often the first to report celebrity deaths, ran a story on Friday at 11:19 a.m. Los Angeles time under the headline “Anne Heche Dead at 53 “. The story read, “Her rep tells TMZ that Anne is ‘brain dead,’ and under California law, this is the definition of death.”
People magazine soon followed up on a similar report, as did the LA Times. They both noted in the body of their stories that Heche was legally dead, although her body was still functional. (The Daily Mail, in an advisory published by Reuters, incorrectly reported that Heche had died on Friday after she was taken off life support; a Daily Mail spokesman said the editors updated her story but did not publish a solution).
“My brother Atlas and I have lost our mother,”
Other news sources clarified the distinction beforehand. The Hollywood Reporter headlined her story on Friday: “Anne Heche declared brain dead, still alive after a car crash, rep says.” The Washington Post did the same.
Some of the early reports were aided by statements from members of the Heche family who declared her dead. The media often rely on family members to confirm the death of a relative.
“My brother Atlas and I have lost our mother,” Heche’s son, Homer Laffoon, said in a widely released statement on Friday. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional fluctuations, I am left with a hint of deep and speechless sadness… Rest in peace mom, I love you.”
Variety, which noted that Heche was technically still alive, issued a statement Friday attributing it to Heche’s “family and friends”: “Today we have lost a shining light, a kind and joyful soul, a loving mother and a loyal friend.” read part. The publication ran a follow-up story Sunday night in which it reported that she had been taken off life support for her, ending all signs of her life.
Statements about the California law and family prompted the LA Times to break the news of Heche’s death on Friday, Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said. She said newspaper reporters “confirmed” with family members that she was dead.
Heche’s Wikipedia page underwent a number of revisions
But it was not enough for the others. The New York Times said it delayed publication of Heche’s obituary until Sunday when her death was “officially confirmed” and “out of respect for the family,” according to a spokeswoman, Naseem Amini.
This left Heche fans and the general public confused throughout the weekend.
Heche’s Wikipedia page underwent a number of revisions as users debated her status, changing her date of death before eventually removing it altogether. As of Monday night, his entry listed his date of death only as “August 2022”, with a footnote explaining: “There is some confusion as to what his date of death actually is until it is made public.” his official death certificate.
The Post’s obituary editor, Adam Bernstein, said the paper does not recognize her brain death as a clear indicator of her death. He cited the case of Terri Schiavo, who remained in a vegetative state for seven years while her family was involved in a lengthy legal battle over whether to remove her from a feeding tube. Schiavo’s feeding tube was eventually removed by court order; she died in 2005.
“It’s black and white. There are no gray areas here. If you’re on life support, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other posts can comment when they feel comfortable with the post. I feel comfortable when someone is really dead.”
Others saw it that way too, despite family statements and California law. “We chose to wait until life support was removed,” said Mike Barnes, a senior editor at the Hollywood Reporter, who wrote hundreds of obituaries for publication, including Heche’s.
A person close to the Heche family, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations, sympathized with reporters. “I think nobody has done anything journalistically or ethically wrong. The family is not mad at anyone,” this person said. “It was a tricky situation when you kept a body alive to harvest organs. But that was Anne’s wish. It’s part of her legacy.”
The rush to break the news could tell a larger story about the value of being the first to report on a celebrity death in the Internet age, Bernstein noted.
Obituaries were once a sleepy corner of daily journalism, but today the death of a prominent figure can generate huge readership flows. As a result, some media outlets amass hundreds of “promoters”: pre-written obituaries about famous people that can be published within minutes of a confirmed death.