Not that greatly exaggerated? When obituaries go premature

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As George HW Bush has found out, the only thing worse than an unkind obit is a premature unkind obit

Pity old George. It was bad enough for the first President Bush to spend Christmas in hospital. To add insult to illness (bronchitis), a German news magazine published his obituary online a day after his family announced he was recovering. Der Spiegel swiftly pulled the article, which described Bush as a "colourless politician", but not before earning a place in the obituaries hall of shame.

As the magazine explained in an apology for the "technical mistake", media prepare obituaries of the living so they can quickly produce a proper account when they die. The Independent has hundreds on file. Christopher Maume, who has edited them since 2008, says age, illness or lifestyle will compel him to order new ones. "One of the first advances I commissioned was Amy Winehouse," he says. The singer died in 2011.

Mistakes often happen (not in this paper, Maume points out) when the wrong button is pushed. In 2008, Bloomberg accidentally published an obituary of Steve Jobs while updating it. Sharon Osbourne, who has also been treated for cancer, was similarly written off in 2004 by ABC News.

Jobs joked about his "death", quoting Mark Twain in a speech (it's worth noting Twain never said "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated". He wrote, "The report of my death was an exaggeration" in an account of a visit in 1897 by a journalist who believed the writer was ill) but misfires can be fatal.

When Marcus Garvey read his obituaries in 1940, the black nationalist was so dismayed by the criticism they contained that he reportedly suffered a stroke and died.

The Daily Telegraph is renowned for its obituaries, but is also a repeat offender. Dave Swarbrick, the folk musician, read about his demise in the paper while recuperating in a Midlands hospital in 1999. "It's not the first time I've died in Coventry," he said. Cockie Hoogterp, the second wife of Baron Blixen, survived her Telegraph obit by more than 50 years, during which time she returned her subscription bills marked "Deceased". The paper had confused her for the Baron's third wife, who died in a car crash in 1938.

Worse still is CNN, which in 2003 managed to reveal dozens of obits on its website. The news organisation had been perfecting their design rather than content and many details were confused. Some followed the template of the obituary of the Queen Mother from the previous year. Thus the site noted the Pope's "love of racing" and described Dick Cheney as the "UK's favourite grandmother".

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