The fine art of telling the tales of life after death

Some of the finest writing to be found in the better newspapers appears on the obituary pages.

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Some of the finest writing to be found in the better newspapers appears on the obituary pages, where interesting or important lives are elegantly described in rich and often illuminating detail. Most people, I imagine, would take pride in knowing their achievements were considered worthy of appraisal. Well-run obituaries departments prepare material for use when famous individuals die; it is not unknown for notable but ageing persons to be invited for lunch for the purposes of updating draft articles and checking basic facts.

By definition, obituaries are not supposed to be seen by their subjects. But there have been exceptions to this rule. Six years ago, on my way to a folk music festival on the outskirts of the English city of Cambridge, I made a detour to Coventry to interview a musician called Dave Swarbrick. He was witty, cheerful and bursting with anecdotes from his life as a folk-rock fiddler. It made for an interesting feature in The Daily Telegraph of London.

But for those who still believe all they read in the newspapers, he should not have been available for interview at all. Four years earlier, the Telegraph had published his obituary in the mistaken belief that a serious illness had proved fatal. Mr Swarbrick recovered from both the illness and the shock of being pronounced dead. Fortunately, there was nothing in the article to disturb his convalescence. He was described as a man who could "electrify an audience with a single frenzied sweep of his bow".

In time, he saw the lighter side of being written about as if deceased and produced the memorable one-liner: "It's not the first time I've died in Coventry." There have been many instances of deaths being announced in error. The decision of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, to change his will and create the Peace Prize is said to have been influenced by his dismay at a French newspaper headline: "The merchant of death is dead", the result of a simple case of mistaken identity (his brother had died).

Mr Swarbrick belongs to a rarer group of men and women who have been able to read full obituaries, the more reflective accounts of their lives that follow mere reports of death. This has happened in a number of ways. The public was for a time able to view a section of the CNN website containing draft memorials to renowned individuals still living. Some people have faked their own deaths. The motivation is usually criminal, as was the case with the former British government minister John Stonehouse in 1974. But Alan Abel, an American prankster, staged his demise five years later in the hope, duly fulfilled, of seeing his obituary in The New York Times.

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia offers a list of innocent victims of erroneous death notices. They include popes and members of royalty, politicians and film stars. Mark Twain, the American author, twice used articles of his own to respond to false suggestions that he had died. On the first occasion, in 1897, confirmation that he was alive came soon enough to prevent the appearance of an obituary, though history records his wry comment: "The report of my death was an exaggeration."

The public's role in filling the pages of Wikipedia makes the site vulnerable to cyber vandalism. Just when I thought this article was complete, I came across an item in which the British journalist Alexander Chancellor wrote of his own entry being doctored so that December 10, 2009, was shown as the date of his death. Mr Chancellor's entry was quickly corrected. In common with Mr Twain and Mr Swarbrick before him, he rose above any sense of indignation, declared himself unconcerned that Wikipedia had not published an assessment of his life and concluded: "It's pointless to care what people are going to think of you after you're dead."

Colin Randall in a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at