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November 25, 2019 Beyond The Dash

5 People Who Read Their Own Premature Obituary

"The report of my death is greatly exaggerated" — Mark Twain

5 People Who Read Their Own Premature Obituary
S.L. Clemens (Mark Twain), 1909. (Wikimedia Commons/George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Writers are not known for being early. In fact, procrastination and writer's block contribute to the anxiety of writers across all disciplines. In today's world of rapid digital news cycles, it's rare to hear of a writer's work ever being premature. But that's just what happened in these five cases of an obituary being published ahead of the death — and then read by the person being honored in the tribute. 


What is a 'premature obituary'?


A premature obituary is a death announcement that is published before the death of its subject. Clerical errors, hoaxes, and simple miscommunication may be behind an obituary that is published too early. False or accidental news reports can lead to confusion and outrage. In the case of a premature obituary, there is also a rare opportunity for the person, whose death is being wrongfully reported, to perceive the ways in which society will remember them when they are gone. 


Premature are different from auto-obituaries; that is, a self-written obituary is not considered 'premature' unless it is accidentally or erroneously published before the death of the person whose life it explores. These are also separate and distinct from obituaries written about living people in order to make a political or artistic statement, as in the case of the Black Obituary Project


Famous premature obituaries


Premature obituaries predominantly affect notable figures and celebrities. Here are five such figures who read the news of their own demise in the newspaper. 


1. Mark Twain

Mark Twain is the most famous and memorable figure to ever read his own obituary. A rumor circulated in the spring of 1897 that the literary genius had passed away following a grave illness.


A perpetually quotable author, Twain is said to have quipped in a return cable, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Although there are conflicting accounts of the exact quotation, this phrase has since gone down in history as the most humble (and slightly dry) way to say "I'm still alive!"


Years later, Twain actually was the subject of a true premature obituary. The New York Times published a report that he had likely been lost at sea, after Twain had been off yachting in choppy seas. After reading the report of his death, Twain wrote a letter back to the New York Times, roundly correcting them.


Mark Twain, circa 1900s. (Wikimedia Commons)


2. Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was known as a man who cheated death regularly. In 1954, iconic novelist and creator of the iceberg theory Ernest Hemingway crashed his plane twice in two days during an African safari. He emerged from the jungle understanding his good fortune:



'...he walked out of the jungle carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin, and was quoted, possibly even correctly, as saying: "My luck, she is running very good."'


— TIME



According to some reports, Hemingway was pleased when several papers reported his death. He is said to have clipped out copies of the obituaries and put them in a scrapbook for his own amusement.


Ernest Hemingway with bull, near Pamplona, Spain, circa summer 1927. (Wikimedia Commons)


3. P.T.  Barnum

P.T. Barnum's premature obituary wasn't exactly unexpected. By 1891, Barnum was dying. The circus founder, sad that he would never read what the papers who write about him after his death, got his wish: The New York Evening Sun amiably ran his life story so that the showman could read it. He passed away a few weeks later, on April 7, 1891. The paper's editor was sure to include a note explaining the premature nature of the obituary, so readers would not be misled. 


Photograph of P.T. Barnum between 1855 and 1865. (Wikimedia Commons)


4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a poet and philosopher who had a hand in founding the Romantic Movement, coined the term 'suspension of disbelief', and famously wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:



Water, water, every where,


And all the boards did shrink;


Water, water, every where,


Nor any drop to drink.



Coleridge died of heart failure on July 25, 1834, at the age of 61, but not without experiencing reports of his own death firsthand. While enjoying a coffee in a hotel some 18 years earlier, Coleridge overheard two men discussing his recent suicide by hanging. Coleridge asked to see the paper, and then revealed his true identity. It is said that the actual victim of the hanging was wearing a shirt bearing Coleridge's initials, which is what led to the  case of mistaken identity and subsequent premature obituary.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 18th Century (Wikimedia Commons)


5. Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher had so many fake death announcements during her life, that hardly anyone believed it when she finally passed away on April 8, 2013. 


Though she was reported dead three times falsely, the most interesting death hoax to affect the Iron Lady happened just the year before her actual death. Canadian Transport Minister John Baird sparked the drama with a text message saying "Thatcher has died." 


The news spread all the way to then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was on the verge of sending condolences when the truth came out: 'Thatcher' was actually the name of John Baird's recently deceased cat. By then, Thatcher (the former Prime Minister, not the cat) had heard the news of her own death plenty of times, but the false report created some chaos for British politicians before the truth was discovered. 


Margaret Thatcher at White House, 13 September 1977. (Wikimedia Commons)


A timely story


Fortunately, most obituaries are timed to the actual death of their subjects. If you are thinking of someone special and wish to share their life story with the world, create a free digital obituary on Beyond the Dash. 


Create an Obituary

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