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.

 

News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Life and Style
Kissing
life
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test