The Dread and Dance of Premature Obituaries

May 28, 2016

“The pomp of death alarms us more than death itself.” So said Francis Bacon, English philosopher and writer (1561-1626), who himself quoting Seneca, Roman philosopher (4 BC-65 AD). That pomp of death includes issues like how many would gather at the funeral, what will be the funeral oration like, what will they write on the gravestone, what obituary the media will publish and who would mourn the death most. And there is premature obituary as happened in the case of Pope John Paul II who was the subject of three premature obituaries.

A premature obituary is the one published whose subject is not actually deceased at the time of publication as in the case of Alfred Nobel, arms manufacturer and founder of the Nobel Prize. In 1888, the death of his brother Ludvig caused several newspapers to publish obituaries of Alfred. A French obituary stated: "The merchant of death is dead" and that Nobel "became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before” through his invention of dynamite. This distressed Nobel, who was concerned that when he truly died he would not be remembered well. This event led him to bequeath the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. Nobel died in 1896.

But, there is another angle: reading one’s obituary before the death and the motives for jumping the gun. It predates Seneca, cited above, as instanced in the Mahabharata.

On the 10th day of the Mahabharata war, Bhishma falls, and Drona is named the supreme commander of the armies. He promises Duryodhana that he will capture Yudhishthira, but then he repeatedly fails to do so. Duryodhana taunts and insults him, which greatly angers Ashwatthama, causing friction between Ashwatthama and Duryodhana. Lord Krishna knew that it was not possible to defeat an armed Drona. Krishna also knew that Drona loved his son Ashwatthama very dearly. So, Krishna suggested to Yudhishthira and other Pāṇḍava brothers that, if he were convinced that his son was killed on the battlefield, then Droṇāchārya would be so sad that he would lay down all his arms on the ground and it would be easier to kill him.

In order to find a way out Lord Kṛiṣhṇa suggested Bhīma to kill an elephant by name Ashwatthama and claim to Droṇācārya that he has killed Droṇacharya's son Aśvatthāma. After killing the elephant as suggested; he loudly proclaimed that he had killed Aśvatthāma. Droṇācārya, however, did not believe Bhīma's words as he knew that it was impossible for anyone to kill Aśvatthāma and he approached Yudhishthira. Droṇa knew of Yudhiṣṭhira's firm adherence to Dharma and that he would never ever utter a lie. When Droṇāchārya approached Yudhiṣṭhira and questioned him as to whether his son was dead, Yudhiṣṭhira responded with the cryptic 'Aśvatthāma is dead. But it is an elephant and not your son'. Kṛiṣhṇa also knew that it was not possible for Yudhiṣṭhira to lie outright. On Krishn’a instructions, the other warriors blew trumpets and conches, raising a tumultuous noise in such a way that Droṇāchārya only heard that "Aśvatthāma was dead” but could not hear the latter part of Yudhiṣṭhira's reply.

Thereupon, Drona descended from his chariot, laid down his arms and sat in meditation. Dhrishtadyumna took this opportunity and beheaded the unarmed Drona.

This is a classic example of motivated and twisted premature obituary. Coming to modern times, the news-breaking media, specially the 24X7 electronic media, has been in the thick of breaking death news of VIPs of all shades. This is not the same as the carefully worded, often in pink prose, and paid for announcements made on the obituary pages and columns that newspapers consider their bread and butter. There was a time when newspapers wanted death certificates before they could publish death announcements. Things have changed now when even the traditionally news-laden front pages are let out for full page ads. If you insist on death certificates, which can be easily forged in today’s electronic copying machines, newspapers would be foregoing a rich stream of daily revenue coming to their doors without having to canvass.

There have been premature death announcements even before the ever-in- a-hurry modern electronic media came on the scene, especially in literature. One outstanding case comes from Shakespeare (1564-1616).In his classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Juliet avoids an arranged marriage by ingesting a potion that temporarily causes her to appear dead. Upon the discovery of her apparent death, she is laid to rest in her family crypt. Romeo, believing that Juliet has actually died, then kills himself by drinking poison. Juliet soon awakens and, finding Romeo dead, stabs herself to death with Romeo's dagger.

Another instance goes back to the dawn of the Christian era. Drusus Julius Caesar, son of Julius Caesar, also a subject of Shakesperian play, during a period of illness was, in 21 AD, the subject of a eulogistic panegyric by the poet Clutorius Priscus, which was prematurely rehearsed in front of some noblewomen at the home of Publius Petronius. The poet, who was seeking to replicate earlier success in a panegyric written after the death of Germanicus, was himself condemned to death by the Roman Senate for anticipating the death of the Emperor's son.

There are hundreds of cases of premature obituary announcements and some random examples are offered below courtesy Wikipedia:

John Allen, a serial criminal, faked his own suicide by drowning off Beachy Head (Britain's most notorious suicide spot) in 1966 to escape prosecution for theft, presumably resulting in his being declared dead. He in fact swam around the coast, retrieved dry clothes that he had hidden, and took up a new identity. However, his crimes continued, including further thefts and bigamy. In 2002 he was jailed for life for having murdered his wife and children in 1975.

Lal Bihari is the Indian founder of the Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People, an organisation which highlights the plight of people in Uttar Pradesh who are incorrectly declared dead by relatives in order to steal their land, usually in collusion with corrupt officials. Biharii himself was officially dead from 1976 to 1994 as a result of his uncle's attempt to acquire his land. Among various attempts to publicize his situation and demonstrate that he was alive, he stood for election against Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 (and lost). He was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for his 'posthumous' activities. .

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: in 1816 the writer heard his death mentioned in a hotel by a man reading out a newspaper report of a coroner's inquest. He asked to see the paper, and was told that "it was very extraordinary that Coleridge the poet should have hanged himself just after the success of his play [Remorse]; but he was always a strange mad fellow". Coleridge replied: "Indeed, sir, it is a most extraordinary thing that he should have hanged himself, be the subject of an inquest, and yet that he should at this moment be speaking to you." A man had been cut down from a tree in Hyde Park, and the only identification was that his shirt was marked 'S. T. Coleridge'; Coleridge thought the shirt had probably been stolen from him. Coleridge died in 1834.

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's death was erroneously announced in the Australian media in 1993 after a London-based Sky News employee saw an internal rehearsal for her future death (one of many conducted by the UK media over the years). Thinking it was for real, he phoned his mother in Australia with the 'news', who passed it on to the media The time zone difference may have made it difficult for the Australian media to check the story during UK night-time. The employee was dismissed for the mistake, but then won a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. The Queen Mother died on 30 March 2002.

Harry Gordon: in 2000, this Australian businessman faked his own death in a boating accident so his wife could claim a fortune in life insurance, though he claimed it was to evade business and relationship problems. He assumed a new identity and fled to Spain, then to England (where he worked in a potato crisp warehouse), South Africa, and New Zealand. He explained gaps in his past to a new girlfriend by telling her he was on a witness protection programme. He was discovered in 2005 and later jailed when, by extraordinary coincidence, his brother encountered him on a mountain path in New Zealand. Gordon published a book about his exploits, titled How I Faked My Own Death.

Ernest Hemingway: after the author and his wife Mary Welsh Hemingway were involved in two African plane crashes in 1954, newspapers reported that both had died. They survived, but Ernest Hemingway suffered extensive injuries which affected him for the rest of his life. AE Hotchner claimed that after the incident, Hemingway read a scrapbook of his obituaries every morning with a glass of champagne. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in 1961.

Steve Jobs: On 27 August 2008, Bloomberg accidentally published a 17-page obituary. During a subsequent keynote address, Jobs joked about the accident by displaying on screen an imprecise quotation of Mark Twain (who was also the recipient of a premature obituary) reading "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated". Jobs actually died of pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, at the age of 56.
Jayaprakash Narayan: while hospitalized in March 1979, the politician's death was erroneously announced by India's prime minister, causing a brief wave of national mourning, including the suspension of parliament and regular radio broadcasting, and closure of schools and shops. The mistake arose when the director of the Intelligence Bureau saw a body looking like Narayan being carried from hospital. Narayan died in October 1979.]
Mark Twain: American author, was reported dead twice: 1. In 1897 when a journalist was sent to inquire after Twain's health, thinking he was near death; in fact it was his cousin who was very ill. Though (contrary to popular belief) no obituary was published, Twain recounted the event in the New York Journal of 2 June 1897, including his famous words "The report of my death was an exaggeration" (which is usually misquoted, e.g. as "The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated", or "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated"). 2. On 4 May 1907, when people lost track of a yacht he was traveling on, the New York Times published an article saying he might have been lost at sea. In fact, the yacht had been held up by fog, and Twain had disembarked. Twain read the article, and cleared up the story by writing a humorous account in the New York Times the following day. Twain died in 1910.


The best premature obituary that I remember is by Piloo Mody, who was an MP when Indira Gandhi proclaimed Emergency and imposed severe restrictions on Press freedom. Piloo, who was jailed, managed to insert an entry in the obituary column of The Times of India: “Died – D.E.M. O’Cracy”. Needless to say that democracy survived the Emergency.

By John B. Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • jimmy noronha, Bellore, Lucknow

    Sun, May 29 2016

    “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” Wonder why this much ado about nothing. Well written sir?

  • Irene Sequeira , Derebail / NY

    Sat, May 28 2016

    Very interesting and informative article. Keep writing. God Bless you with good health and long life.

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