Top 10 Celebrities Who Read Their Own Obituary

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It is journalistic practice for rookies to start writing obits as their first assignments when first diving into the newspaper world. Sometimes these writers get ahead of themselves and some celebrities will find out that their obituaries have been written before their demise. And that means that a few of those people have the misfortune of actually seeing those obits printed before they have passed beyond the mortal realm.

To be included on this list, the celebrity or historical figure had to be of some significance, either famous or infamous and declared dead by in a major news media market such as a newspaper, on radio, on television or on the Internet. Imagine their surprise when they found out they were dead – talk about morbid curiosity!

10. Daniel Boone

Explorer of the American West and folk hero, Daniel Boone was made a folk hero because of the publication of his exploits in dime serials of the day. Kentucky’s “first” resident, Boone’s obit was erroneously printed a few years before he died at the age of 86 in 1820. Who knows, the newspaper who put his obit in early might have thought he was exploring really new territory – beyond the grave!?

9. Bertrand Russell

Welsh philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was ill from pneumonia when he was reported dead by a Japanese newspaper in 1920 – some 50 years before he died. Supposedly the New York Times picked up the story and ran it. This prompted an apology by way of him writing his own obit – but supposedly that obit written for his own entertainment was quoted in 1970 when he did pass away.

8. P.T. Barnum

Perhaps the only member of this list to actually want to see his obituary printed before his death, PT Barnum, the genius behind the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, actually requested to see his printed in the New York Evening Sun. He got his wish on March 24, 1891; the obit was printed on the front page. How’s that for top billing? He died two weeks later.

7. Alfred Nobel

While most people recognize Nobel’s name for the prizes it confers each year, Alfred Nobel was known in his day as the “Merchant of Death” since he had invented both nitroglycerine and dynamite. When a newspaper printed his obit, 13 years before he died in 1896, and gave him that dreadful moniker, he decided to do something about it creating the stipulations for the prizes in his last will. How ironic, the Nobel Prize has been known for patting people on the back for peace, yet it’s funded by some of the most explosive discoveries in history!

6. Paul McCartney

One of the two still-kicking Beatles, Sir Paul McCartney was declared dead by a caller to Detroit DJ Russ Gibb in 1966. In a separate case, a New York DJ discussed his death a few days later. Both instances prompted many references to his death in future Beatles songs.

5. Earnest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary Welsh Hemingway were in a plane crash in 1954 prompting newspaper to declare them dead. Much to the chagrin of the news services, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Old Man and the Sea” was seriously injured but remained alive until 1961, seven years after the debilitating accident.

4. Ronald Reagan/Queen Elizabeth

These two prominent world leaders were victims of the 2003 CNN.com premature obit section. The Queen Mother Elizabeth was also declared dead after a routine drill witnessed by a rookie at Sky News. When the rookie called his mother in Australia, the word got out and they weren’t able to verify before running the story. As for Reagan, it is rather surprising that he was not declared dead after the failed assassination attempt on his life in the early 80s. Reagan is known as one of the most popular American presidents of the latter half of the 20th Century.

3. Mark Twain

Called the father of American Literature, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he is better known was reported as dead in 1897, some 13 years before he died. Reading his obit he gave the famous quote – “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It seems in life and death he could still captivate audiences with his words.

2. Bob Hope

The charismatic vaudevillian Bob Hope died just a few years ago, but is the second dead celebrity on our list to have read his obit not once, but twice. Both times his death was reported on a website before it was yanked. Hope is a prime example of the journalistic practice of writing obits for famous people; he had been on the Celebrity Dead Pool for years before his actual death.

1. Pope John Paul II

Known as one of the greatest popes ever to serve in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II is the only person to have read his obit on three different occasions. And like Hope, he was defying people’s expectations for years before he actually walked through the pearly gates. The pontiff was announced dead in 1981 after an assassination attempt, in the CNN.com premature obit section and once hours before he actually died.

Honorable Mention

James Earl Jones, George H.W. Bush, Rudyard Kipling, James Whistler, Steve Jobs, Joe DiMaggio, Arthur C. Clarke, Alice Cooper, Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher.

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7 Comments

  1. also, more recently, jeff goldblum.

    the colbert report did a marvelous parody of the whole situation just yesterday.

  2. Marco Melanson on

    Classical composer Joseph Haydn was declared dead in 1805 upon the death of his brother. He’s the one that comes to me first when we speak of people who have read their own obituary.

  3. Peter Boucher on

    How about Mikey from the 70’s Life Cereal commercial. He apparently downed a bag of “pop rocks” candy and swallowed it down with a can of soda and his stomach exploded. He is still living and doing fine.

  4. Groucho Marx, in a Playboy interview, said the New York Times allowed him to read his obituary, as they make up obituaries in advance. He said he offered to punch it up for them, but they declined. They should have let him do it. It would have been one of the most quoted obituaries ever.

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