Buried Alive: The Story Behind Advance Obituaries

After reading his own obituary in 1897, Mark Twain said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” What most people don’t know is that major newspapers write premature celebrity obituaries all the time. Called “advance obituaries,” they are prepared and kept on file for when the eventual time comes. Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1,700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, advising them that they’re updating the person’s biographical file. Television networks also prepare video packages well in advance that can be aired soon after a celebrity death. Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of advance obituaries is accidental publication. The most famous — aside from Mark Twain — is Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008, three years before his actual passing. Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate — among them George H. W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro, whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003. The practice of creating advance obituaries can and does lead to more than just embarrassment. The last thing a newspaper wants to do is have to publish a retraction and issue an apology.