In South Korea, companies sell mock funerals for college students. The young people write their wills, put on the traditional Korean burial clothes and have themselves nailed into a coffin -- temporarily, of course. The point is to have them imagine their death, and in so doing, reorder their priorities in life.
Americans are loath to think about death, especially of the young. And so the news that The Associated Press has written an advance obituary for Britney Spears caused a small uproar. Some considered it unseemly to anticipate the demise of a 26-year-old. The pop star may have a history of self-destructive behavior, but she could still turn her life around. Who knows? She might live to collect Social Security.
News organizations have long stockpiled advance obituaries for older statesmen, Nobel Prize winners and other illustrious retirees. But the sudden passing last year of Anna Nicole Smith at age 39 had caught them off balance.
The former Playboy Playmate's history of personal chaos and drug abuse should have put her possible death on a near horizon. AP's intention in preparing Spears' obituary was simply to have it handy should she die.
It's not that obituary writers formerly failed to recognize that the remaining life expectancies of hard-living young celebrities may match those of long-retired presidents. That's not new. In 1970, drugs killed both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, two rock-music greats still in their 20s.
What's changed are the Internet and 24-7 cable news channels, which require instant reporting of dramatic events, especially when a celebrity is involved. In the case of a famous person's passing, that would include a biography.
And losses of young luminaries do seem more frequent these days. Actor Heath Ledger's candle recently burned out at age 28, apparently due to a pill overdose. His death closely followed that of another promising actor, 25-year-old Brad Renfro. Renfro had been arrested two years ago while trying to buy heroin.
"Memento mori" is a Latin phrase meaning "remember you will die." It was delivered to generals as they triumphantly marched through ancient Rome -- and served as a reality check on any victor's pumped-up sense of invincibility.
European monks kept skulls on their desks as a reminder of where they were inevitably headed. "Youth With a Skull" -- a famous painting by the Dutch master Frans Hals -- shows a rosy and robust young man holding a skull. It is a commentary on the transience of life.
Americans don't contemplate these big questions much. Reflection is especially rare in the celebrity culture, where "there is no such thing as bad publicity." Time in rehab -- drug, alcohol or whatever -- has become a veritable rite of passage for the young and famous. Indeed, telling the story of one's rise from the ashes of addiction has become a career-extending strategy for those past their prime.
With all the pictures of stars happily leaving the clinic, young people may assume that there are always nets to catch their fall. They forget those who didn't make it into rehab. Not everyone gets a second or third act.
Although AP wrote the Spears obituary purely for business reasons, it may have also done the star a service. Like the mock Korean funerals, the obituary could shock Spears into imagining her extinction -- and thus mend her ways. In a similar vein, a court ordered troubled young actress Lindsay Lohan to work in a morgue following a drunken-driving incident.
Perhaps all those who indulge in high-risk behavior should be presented with their obituary, dressed in funeral robes and placed in a coffin. Sounds morbid, but that could be the most important thing that ever happened to them.