Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).
They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.
Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”
With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.
This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.
The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.
Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”
Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.
Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.
In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”
On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.
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