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Premature obituaries

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rachel Simhon explains premature obituaries.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rachel Simhon explains premature obituaries.THE BASICS The announcement of the death of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot threatened to sour the country's joy at the success of the Winter Olympics (Lightfoot, 71, is a national treasure). He is very much alive and heard the "news" on his car radio while driving back from the dentist.

THE HISTORY Down the years many celebrated people have wrongly been reported dead as a result of carelessness, misinformation or hoaxing. Some, such as British folk singer Dave Swarbrick, have been wryly accepting of it ("It isn't the first time I've died in Coventry"); others have been less than amused. In 2001, two Texas DJs were fired for starting a rumour that Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake had been killed in a car crash.

THE FALLOUT The dead can't sue for libel, but the living certainly can, so it behoves the writers of disobliging obituaries to double-check this most basic fact before publishing. Many people are devastated to read of their own demise, but good can sometimes come of it: it is said that reading a premature obituary in which he was described as "the merchant of death" prompted Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, to institute his eponymous prizes.

THE CONVERSATION Now that you know what the world really thinks about you, keep your chin up and quote Oscar Wilde: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

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