With Halloween right around the corner, it’s the perfect time of year to remember the sobering reality that death comes for us all. Hooray! That’s the case for many as the streets fill up with ghosts, ghouls and zombies, though that certainly isn’t the case universally. In my neighborhood, the ghosts and ghouls are generally outnumbered by the hoards of Jedi, Avengers, and Disney Princesses that come with open pillowcases. For a master primer on our cultural denial of death, look no further than Ethan Richardson’s piece in the Mockingbird Magazine’s Love & Death issue.

While we may be in a general state of denial regarding death, the obituary team at the New York Times cannot afford such a luxury. Not only is the obituary staff at the Times obligated to keep up with the regular pace of local deaths, but they also have a large queue of nearly 1,700 pre-written obituaries ready to go for when sad news finds a reporter’s ears. From a 2014 write-up on the department:

For me and most of The Times’s other staff obituary writers — Douglas Martin, Bruce Weber, Paul Vitello and William Yardley — a majority of our time is spent writing breaking news obituaries, known as “dailies.” But it is the “advances,” written in hurried, stolen moments between our daily deadlines, that keep us up at night.

Any advance can become a daily without warning, and we must be ever vigilant. (The most vigilant among us is undoubtedly Robert McFadden, our Pulitzer Prize-winning obit-writing colleague at the paper, whose job is devoted entirely to advances and who, as of this writing, has 235 of them on file.)

Pragmatically, this vigilance creates strain; philosophically, it induces in the obit writer a moonlit cast of mind, informed by the chronic awareness of how readily any of us can slip from one half of the portmanteau to the other.

It’s difficult to live in denial of death when you have to write about it daily. This pre-written obituary tradition is not necessarily linked to the fast pace of internet culture either—Times staff have been keeping up with obituaries long before the internet age.

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it. The midcentury Timesman Alden Whitman, an obituary writer famous for sitting down with his subjects in advance, favored tender circumlocutions on the order of, “We’re updating your biographical file” and “This is for possible future use.” I have used both with a fair margin of success.

But all this worrying pays dividends. If an advance has gone according to plan, it has been researched, written, fact-checked, filed, edited and copy-edited, laid out on a page and sometimes even supplied with accompanying videos for online viewing, all well ahead of the game. Then, when the time comes, a writer or editor has only to drop in the when, the where and the how of the death, an act known in obituary parlance as “putting the top on the story.”

It is through the miracle of advances that long, rich, Boswellian chronicles of the celebrated dead can appear in The Times seemingly on a moment’s notice.

Can you imagine getting a phone call from the obituary section asking for updates to your “biological file”? It seems doubly macabre that in 2017, the posthumous stories of our lives can become another source of web or print content, though thankfully the obit section is still advertisement free on the Times website. And yet, despite the 1,700 advances on file in New York, ready for any unexpected car crash, overdose, or old age illness, that’s not how it always goes:

Despite our best efforts, death can catch us unawares. When Robin Williams committed suicide at age 63, we had no advance on file. There was no reason to — he seemed hale, he had boundless energy and he was far younger than those who typically command our attention. Our editors learned of his death just before 7 p.m. — nearly an hour after writers normally file their dailies — and our culture reporter Dave Itzkoff, assisted by Mr. Weber and other newsroom colleagues, produced a 1,500-word front-page obit on a pulverizing deadline.

The whole piece is a fascinating exercise in a world that’s trying to prepare for the uncontrollable. But of all the wacky circumstances that pre-written obituaries can bring about, this one is perhaps the strangest:

Subjects can live so long, in fact, that they survive the writer [of their obituary]. When that happens, if the byline is celebrated enough — and the writing too good to consign to the dustbin — our editors may decide to publish the obit, as if from beyond the grave, once its subject has joined its author. The result is a vivid journalistic status symbol the author will never see.

An obituary from beyond the grave is a unique thought. For a select few, someone who has already died gets the final word on their life and its meaning. It’s something not too unfamiliar for the Christian religious, for ours too is an obituary from beyond the grave. Someone who has already died has spoken the final word on our life. The big difference being of course that the author died two thousand years ago, the grave is empty, and the obituary is temporary.

As of writing, the top news is that music legend Fats Domino has died of old age at 89. We may not have been prepared, but the obit team at the New York Times has it covered.