Hensley: Premature obituaries happen more often than you'd think

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No doubt, many noticed that Tony Dow, who played the older brother on “Leave It to Beaver,” show of black-and-white television days, was the victim of a phenomenon that has come to be known as “premature obituary.”

It was announced around midday Tuesday that Dow had died before another announcement a short while after indicated he was still alive. The former actor’s family said he was under hospice care and in his “final hours.” Indeed, Dow died Wednesday, according to published reports.

Doug Hensley
Doug Hensley

What happened? Accounts suggest Dow’s wife mistakenly thought he had died during the night and told the publicists, who posted the information. The media, including The New York Times and Washington Post, saw the details from what would be considered a reliable source and published stories, which subsequently were either pulled or updated to indicate Dow had not died Tuesday.

It might be easy to be critical Dow’s wife, but until you’re in those shoes, watching a loved one suffering and inching toward death, no one is qualified to judge. A lot of us have an inkling of what she might have been going through, and everything would have been complicated by Dow’s celebrity.

Likewise, media members moved in a responsible manner, relying on a credible source for a news account. Perhaps they could have tried to corroborate this with a second source, but the information came from those closest to Dow. I’m reminded of the wonderful journalism instructor at Texas Tech who used to tell students (and I’m paraphrasing), “If your mother says she loves you, verify it with a second source.”

For those wondering, there is an entire Wikipedia entry dedicated to premature obituaries with a list of primary causes (more on that in a moment) and an excruciatingly long list of those who have been reported dead before their time. This, of course, might make most of us channel Mark Twain, who purportedly once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Turns out, though, it’s the quote’s content that is greatly exaggerated. He was responding to a journalist’s question about his being ill or possibly dead. Turns out a cousin of his had been ailing, so Twain wrote, in part, “The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Maybe the best line on this topic was uttered in the movie “Unforgiven” by Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (portrayed by Gene Hackman). He said, “…I even thought I was dead ‘til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska.”

There’s an episode of the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show” where her character, Mary Richards, is updating prewritten obituaries so that when a well-known local person died, the background material was ready. However, after working all night, Mary became punchy and included phony material in the obituary of Wee Willie Williams, the city’s oldest living resident, who happens to die. Of course, the phony material gets on the air, and all of us in this business are once again reminded that you never kid around with copy – because that’s what can happen.

There was a time when if you asked editors if they wanted to have a story first or they wanted it to be factually correct, they would respond “yes” to both, but with the increasing premium placed on delivering information quicker than the competition, mistakes are going to be made.

 Unfortunately, this happens with obituaries, which, many times are pushed into the public sphere before the subject’s death. The Wikipedia entry indicated CNN incorrectly reported the death of seven major world figures prematurely in 2003. These instances most times are human error with the obituary appearing on a website, where immediacy rules.

A second reason for premature reports is what appears to have happened with the Dow story. The person is near death, either because of illness or accident, but has not yet died. For a look at this concept, see the charming 1978 Warren Beatty movie “Heaven Can Wait,” where a character is rescued from what appeared to be certain death.

There are a handful of other reasons, including the pedestrian “clerical errors.” According to Wikipedia, about 500 living people in the country are inadvertently considered dead each month by the Social Security Administration. For a grim reminder of the implications of this, see an episode of “M*A*S*H” in which Alan Alda’s character is incorrectly declared dead by the U.S. Army. The episode’s title is “The Late Captain Pierce.”

Other reasons for premature death reports have also been often used as plot devices in your favorite movies and television series. Fake death, fraud, impostor (usually someone passing themselves off as a minor celebrity, per Wikipedia), misidentified body, misunderstandings, and everybody’s favorite, name confusion.

Now, sometime when you have an hour or so to spare, you can spend some time reading through all the people reported dead when they were not. For purposes of giving an overview of what to expect, I’m including only a handful here (because the great majority of people on the list are folks with whom I’m not familiar; all are per Wikipedia).

Among the not-so-dearly-departed is Scott Baio, whom you may remember played Chachi Arcola on the long-running situation comedy “Happy Days.” He was reported to have died in a car accident in 1997 in what was later revealed to be a hoax.

Our family knew her as Hannah Montana, but the world knows her as Miley Cyrus. She was reported to have died in a car accident in 2008, although she performed in concert a few days later.

Even one of the greatest baseball players ever, Joe DiMaggio, was incorrectly reported to have died in January 1999. Imagine the Yankee Clipper’s surprise to see that news item ticking across the bottom of his television screen. DiMaggio died two months later.

Finally, my personal favorite. P.T. Barnum, the showman who probably didn't say, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” had his obituary published early. It wasn’t because of an error, but because he had said he wanted an early glimpse of what the papers might say about him. The New York Evening Sun printed his obit two weeks before his death, and told readers Barnum was alive when the story published.

I wonder if he was pleased.

Doug Hensley is associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Globe-News. He can be reached at dhensley@amarillo.com

This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Doug Hensley premature obituaries happen more often than you'd think