Dead wrong

It's the gravest mistake any hack could make - reporting the demise of someone still living. Anthony

During the six years I toiled in Elysian Fields for the Times, I very soon learnt not to disclose the nature of my occupation to any casual acquaintance. It always proved - not to put too fine a point upon it - something of a conversation-stopper. Whatever may have been true of the Victorians, contemporary society is distinctly squeamish in its attitudes towards death. To reveal that you were professionally associated with it (even in so remote a fashion as overseeing the obituaries page of a broadsheet newspaper) was immediately to cast a pall over any social gathering.

Yet in a different, more formal context - say, in response to a lecture or a talk - you can still find strong evidence of active interest, not to say morbid curiosity. How is the decision made as to whose life is rewarded with an obituary notice and whose is not? Are there any formal criteria for doing so, or is it just a matter of editorial whim? Why are the obituary pages still so male-dominated? Can you ensure your own temporary immortality by obligingly providing copy in advance of the event?

The answer to the last has to be a firm and resounding "no". However unfairly, the sending in, as it were, of a reminder of one's existence is a totally doomed method of trying to ensure membership of the Not Forgotten Association. Hard-hearted men (and, with the exception of the special case of the Financial Times, all the major obits editors are male) tend to have a short way of dealing with such importunity. It is their responsibility to make their own decisions and they will not have their prerogative pre-empted.

In reality, the role of an obits editor is not quite that grand or monarchical. I would guess that at least two-thirds of those who have their lives commemorated in the editorial columns of newspapers owe the space they command to their own fame and celebrity: they have forced their way in through the familiarity of their own names. (That the same individuals tend to appear in the course of a week or so on the obits pages of all the national broadsheets is presumably sufficient proof of that.) It is only in the grey area of those who are not already reasonably well known that any genuine element of discretion comes into play. Here, admittedly, all sorts of pressure can be brought to bear: to have a working connection with the paper concerned plainly does no harm, nor does friendship with the editor or the proprietor - or even simply a shared sphere of interest with someone who works on the obits page.

But, in my experience, the determining factor is - as often as not - whether the life story to be told has an unconventional or out-of-the-ordinary flavour to it. So much of the stuff you are committed to carrying covers the lives of the great and the good - major-generals, lord lieutenants, Whitehall deputy secretaries - that the temptation to liven things up with a little spice and variety becomes almost irresistible. For years, the Daily Telegraph has maintained a much-envied speciality in circus performers, and on the Times - I fear with indifferent success - I tried to open up a new line of eccentric clerics. It certainly made a change from "the moustaches" (as members of the military are known), or even "the po-faces" (as I increasingly became inclined to call the diplomats).

Both the Times and the Telegraph, which still practise anonymity in their notices, share, as it happens, one major advantage over their two more modern rivals - the Guardian and the Independent - which insist that their contributors sign what they write. Every morning, the old Establishment warhorses carry a long list of paid announcements of deaths - and this roll-call of prepaid passengers across the Styx is studied vigilantly in the hours before either paper goes to press by the respective obituary staffs, in order to discover if any name has surfaced there that demands immediate attention. The commercial departments of the Guardian and the Independent, which carry virtually no "death announcements", supply their editorial colleagues with no such service - and it has only recently occurred to me that this may well afford a clue as to why the Times and the Telegraph continue to adhere to the principle of anonymity. If you want a quick turnaround - on the death, for example, of a famous novelist - you simply cannot afford to check every update or amendment with the relevant author in the probably very limited time you have at your disposal. Yet, if the piece carries a signature at the bottom, how can you possibly put words into the mouth of an identifiable individual that may not at all represent his or her view?

And therein lies a trade secret. If not the majority, then the most significant, of obituary notices get written well in advance of publication. The Times holds a "stock" of something like 5,000 notices, ready to be injected into the next day's paper at the flick of a computer key, and the Telegraph, I believe, holds a similar number. Unless a particular death has been heavily foreshadowed, these notices - kept, as you might put it, in "the freezer" - are unlikely to read as being entirely fresh or up to date. Hence the often hectic hours between 4pm and 7pm, when the journalistic equivalent of the mortician's arts have to be applied. Hence also (though this perhaps is another story) the ever-present dread lest part of one notice should get mixed up in another without, in so short a space of time, anyone noticing. Whether computers - or, at least, the process of input into them - have increased this peril, I do not care to speculate. Amid the giddy heights of the Telegraph's HQ at Canary Wharf, the mere mention of the 8th Marquess of Lansdowne is still quite enough to induce a collective nervous breakdown.

But mixing up one aristocratic family with another is not, in fact, the worst thing that can happen to an obituaries editor. The most haunting fear is that one day you will bury someone alive. Mercifully, that did not happen to me - although I did have to publish one obituary notice nine years after one of my predecessors had, as he thought, permanently laid the subject to rest.

He was wrong. The individual concerned, a BBC sports commentator called Rex Alston, woke up in hospital - where he was recovering from eating a bad oyster - to be informed of his alleged death by a doctor. Fortunately, he took the news very well, and any delayed shock he may have felt was apparently assuaged by a case of champagne hurriedly sent to him by an even more shocked (and by now contrite) obituaries editor.

Not all such stories, however, end so happily. Patrick Hemingway told me in a recent radio interview from the United States that he felt his father, the legendary Ernest, never really recovered from having his death falsely announced not only in the newspapers but all over the world's airwaves. This was the result of Ernest Hemingway's involvement, in 1954, in a light airplane crash in Uganda - the wrecked plane was later spotted from the sky, but there was no evidence of survivors.

Back in Nairobi, how did the experience of reading about his own death affect him? "I think that it was profoundly disturbing," Patrick said of his father, who was then 55. "I think his life was altered - from that date on he was a different person." In fairness, Patrick (now himself in his sixties) went on to add that he thought what his father, who had just won the Pulitzer prize, most mourned was missing the chance of "a perfect death" - certainly a better one than America's most famous 20th-century writer eventually achieved by putting a shotgun in his mouth and blowing his brains out.

Anthony Howard presented Reports of My Death on BBC Radio 4 earlier this month

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up