Still with us: the peculiar embarrassment of the premature obituary

Sometimes, the media reports the death of a public figure – or even a private one – when he or she is very much alive. Obits editor Chris Maume explains how it happens

It's every obituaries editor's worst nightmare: printing a piece when the subject is still very much with us. It's never happened while I've been the Independent's obituaries editor and I can only hope and pray that it never will.

Sven-Olof Svensson's recent recovery from illness can't have been helped when he read his own obituary in the local newspaper, the Jonkopings-Posten in southern Sweden.

It turned out that his sister had spoken to doctors after he'd checked himself into hospital feeling unwell. She'd somehow come away with the impression that Sven-Olof had passed on and written his obit. After it had appeared, a friend went to collect his things and found him alive and well.

There are hundreds of instances of deaths being prematurely reported – probably the most famous was Mark Twain, who came up with the famous line about reports of his death being exaggerated – but few of them have reached the obituary stage and even fewer of those have been in print, where there's generally a little time to check these things properly. Dave Swarbrick, the Fairport Convention singer and violinist, was recovering from a serious illness in a Coventry hospital in 1999 when the Daily Telegraph printed his obituary – a glowing one, as it happens. He was unperturbed (though perhaps he might not have been so phlegmatic if they hadn't been nice about him). "It's not the first time I've died in Coventry," he observed.

Sometimes it can be due to names being confused. In 1920 The Times printed an obituary of Lord Desborough, the sportsman and politician. In fact it was the barrister Lord Bessborough who'd died. Lord Desborough lived for another 25 years.

The most consequential case occurred 125 years ago when Ludvig Nobel died. Several papers published obituaries of his considerably more famous brother Alfred – the inventor of dynamite – and they weren't kind: "The merchant of death is dead" was one headline. Stung, Alfred took stock of his life and decided he'd rather be remembered for something good. So when he did die, the bulk of his estate went to setting up the prizes that still bear his name.

The case of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, was tragic: after he suffered a stroke in 1940 he read his obituary in the Chicago Defender, which described him as "broke, alone and unpopular". Supposedly as a result, he suffered a second stroke and died for real.

Mostly it's websites and rolling news channels, with their rapid turnaround, which blunder, George HW Bush and Sharon Osbourne being two high-profile victims, with advance pieces accidentally appearing on the Der Spiegel website and on ABC News respectively. CNN, though, wins the all-comers record. In 2003, it accidentally posted obituaries for Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan on its website. What was worse, the advance pieces had used the Queen Mother's obituary as a template and bits of hers made it into bits of theirs – the Pope's love of racing was noted, while Cheney was describe as "the UK's favourite grandmother".

The Queen Mother, who had died the previous year, had form in this respect, having had her own death prematurely announced in Australia in 1993, when a Sky News employee in London saw a rehearsal for her future death in progress. He thought it was for real, rang his mum Down Under and she alerted the media there.

Over in southern Sweden, Sven-Olof Svensson took it on the chin when it happened to him.

"We are all on the same road," he observed philosophically. "Sooner or later you are going to end up in the obituary section."

Preferably, though, when dead.

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
Sport
football
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

    Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us