Reader’s guide on why the media keeps on file pre-death obituaries

Wangari Maathai

A bench at Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner with Prof Wangari Maathai’s image. The Green Belt Movement founder and Nobel laureate, who died in September 2011, didn’t have her life story researched in advance.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Advance obituaries afford the media plenty of time to research and write full-length, in-depth chronicles.
  • They can also be updated whenever necessary — up to the day the person dies.

If you die and the Nation publishes a news story about you in its news pages, chances are that you’re a well-known person. If you’re particularly well known, the Nation might even write your obituary in advance and put it on file waiting for you to die. 

Last week, I said writing an advance obituary is a game plan that enables the media to publish a well-researched life story of a person immediately after they die. I said this in connection with the coverage of the life story of Charles Njonjo. Today, I want to explain further this untold journalistic practice.

An advance obituary is written because a person could die any time and no editor wants to be caught in the embarrassing situation where a well-known person dies and he has no material ready for immediate publication. In the case of Njonjo, the media had his obituary on file, just waiting for him to die.

Advance obituaries afford the media plenty of time to research and write full-length, in-depth chronicles. They can also be updated whenever necessary—up to the day the person dies. The final updating may entail no more than information on when and where the person died and the cause of death. And — viola! — using this journalistic miracle, media audiences are treated to a rich and colourful narrative, which looks as if it was written the same day the person died.

Culturally insensitive

Owing to limited resources, it’s impossible to write an advance obituary for every prominent person. So, how does the editor decide whom to write about before they die? Presidents and powerful politicians are always obvious choices because of their impact on society. But, in general, people who are old, say in their 70s and 80s, and have a health problem, and have had an impact on society, and are in the public eye, are possible candidates.

How far in advance should an obituary be written? The purpose of writing an advance obituary is to have material ready for immediate use when a person dies. But nobody can time death and no editor wants to be caught unawares. So the writing starts when a suitable candidate is identified. 

It may take weeks, months or even years, however, before the person dies. So news organisations hold in stock, waiting to be published, scores of advance obituaries for months and years. There have been cases where journalists die before the subjects of their advance obituaries.

Is writing advance obituaries culturally insensitive? Many Africans think so. To many of us, anticipating the death of a person is tantamount to wishing the person dead or evoking a death curse. Perhaps this is why writing advance obituaries is such a hidden and hush-hush affair. No editor freely divulges the names of persons whose obituaries he has on file waiting for them to kick the bucket.

Prematurely published

There is also a real danger that advance obituaries can be mistakenly leaked or published. Imagine the horror and anguish that would result from an obituary that is prematurely published. It is reported, for example, that Marcus Garvey, the pioneer Pan-Africanist, died of a heart attack on June 10, 1940 after reading his obituary in the Chicago Defender. The headline said “Marcus Garvey Dies in London” after years of being “broke, alone and unpopular”.

Many advance obituaries have been prematurely published. On November 16, 2020, Radio France Internationale inadvertently published on its website the obituary of Queen Elizabeth, who was supposed to have died of coronavirus. On April 16, 2003, CNN mistakenly published the obituary of Nelson Mandela, who would die nearly 11 years later.

However, not everyone who is well known gets their story done in advance. In fact, most obituaries are not written in advance and there have been many well-known Kenyans who died without having their life stories being written in advance.

For example, from what was published in the local media, it seems the first African woman Nobel Peace laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai, didn’t have her life story researched in advance, though she died nearly a year after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer on September 25, 2011.

The selection of candidates seems to be a hit-and-miss affair, depending on the media, its resources and the acumen of its editors.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264.

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