After a fiery car crash on August 5, Anne Heche, a Hollywood actress who starred in TV shows and films over 30 years, died on Thursday, August 11, according to the Los Angeles Times, and on Sunday, August 14, according to the New York Times. She was 53.
The discrepancy in dates is explained by the protocols followed by newspaper obituarists. At the LA Times, brain death is regarded as death. At the NYTimes and other papers, it seems, cessation of circulation is regarded as death.
In California law, brain death is death. The relevant statute says: “ “An individual who has sustained … irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” The headline in Hollywood Reporter on Friday was: “Anne Heche Declared Brain Dead, Still on Life Support Following Car Crash, Rep Says.”
The New York Times, on the other hand, held off publishing Heche’s obituary until Sunday when her death was “officially confirmed”.
The Washington Post announced on Friday that Heche was brain dead, but that wasn’t good enough for the obituaries editor:
The Post’s obituaries editor, Adam Bernstein, said the newspaper doesn’t recognize brain death, which is sometimes partial, as a clear marker of death.
“It’s black and white. There’s no gray area here. If you’re on life support, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other publications can make their own judgment about when they’re comfortable publishing. I’m comfortable when someone is actually dead.”
After Heche was declared brain dead, she was kept on life support so that she could donate her organs.