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Being declared dead is automated, so why is resurrection such a nightmare?

Death becomes you swiftly but it’s messy making your way back

Something for the Weekend Zombies walk among us – until they need a nice sit-down, of course. It can be tiring to be undead. No wonder they drag their feet around and do all that moaning.

One such moaner is 58-year-old Michel from Montpellier. He has never stopped complaining since the postman delivered a letter one morning in June to offer him condolences on his recent death.

It was, as you might imagine, an administrative error: someone had probably clicked in the wrong checkbox or filed a request in the wrong folder. It was unlikely to be the result of a concerted Kafka-esque conspiracy to erase Michel from existence. Uncheck that box, drag the file out of the folder. It should be easy enough.

Evidently not. Once you’ve been declared dead, it sets in motion a sequence of automated digital-only procedures that sprint towards completion with alarming rapidity. You may have heard of France’s notoriety for officious paperwork and the snail-pace of its bureaucracy when you are living and breathing. But once you’re a stiff, it’s the fast lane electrons all the way.

Michel discovered that his bank accounts had already been frozen. His social security file had been closed immediately. His national health ID card was no longer valid and his top-up health insurance was cancelled.

He nipped over to his local social security office to see if they could put the brakes on the process but apparently it was too late: everything had already been done to kill him off, bar physically shoving him in a box and inviting friends and relatives around for beer and sandwiches.

Surely there’s a rollback option?

Ah now, it’s not that simple. The system architect that designed the automated process did not think of making [Alive] and [Dead] a pair of either-or radio buttons. They did not envisage a situation in which death, our ultimate existential destination, could be reversed by choosing Edit > Undo. There are no second- or third-life Power-Ups IRL. Instead, the system architect not unreasonably assumed that dying would be a one-way trip from which nobody is expected to return.

The system is not a complete disaster, though. The woman at the desk of the social security office was able to use it to find that a French national with exactly the same name and birthdate as Michel had died – albeit 4,500km (c 2,800 miles) away in Israel – and the two strangers’ records had probably been mixed up by a poorly trained official. So the error has been located. Good. Can it be corrected, please?

Yes, she said, before booking him in for a meeting to discuss it in two weeks’ time. No doubt he was also asked to bring documents that explicitly state when he didn’t die.

It turns out that I live in a hot-spot region for those who are both dead and alive at the same time. In March, a retired gent in the Dordogne was erroneously declared dead and it took him nearly six months to get his pension payments reinstated. His wife was told she had to write to multiple governmental agencies with copies of her husband’s Birth Certificate and the French bureaucratic marvel that is known as a Life Certificate.

I would advise every French citizen to carry a copy of their Life Certificate with them at all times. You never know when an official will ask you for evidence that you are not in fact dead.

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In September last year, another retired couple experienced a more complicated problem. The husband died but his widow was declared dead by mistake. She has been fighting to get this put right ever since. In October 2019, a retired man from Perpignan was declared to have died simultaneously with his wife, who passed away following a long illness. It took six months to "Undo."

In July 2019, another local fellow was faced with a double-whammy of his 37-year-old son dying and having to deal with the aftermath of an over-zealous box-ticker’s screwup who entered into the system that both father and son had died at the same time. The bereaved father is reported to have said that trying to correct the erroneous declaration of his own death while sorting out the real one of his son nearly killed him.

This would certainly have been a satisfactory outcome from a purely bureaucratic standpoint and saved some systems operators a great deal of inconvenience over the summer vacation period. Indeed, it could be considered unpatriotic of the father not to have obliged in this respect.

There is a gentle irony in that the region in which I live is also renowned for people not dying precociously. The world’s current oldest living person resides here: Lucile Randon, a long-retired nun who was born on 11 February 1904. The longest-living person ever recorded in human history was another local: Jeanne Calment lived to be well over 122 before her death in 1997.

Given the region’s propensity for longevity, it is perhaps not surprising that there are so many erroneous declarations of death. I imagine that whenever an individual calls the local newspaper to insert a death notice, the Classifieds editor checks the age of the deceased: if they are under 100, he thinks, it might be an error.

What’s annoying, of course, is the speed with which the post-death bureaucratic operations are completed through automation fails to be matched with similar efficiencies in reversing them in case of a mistake. With so many of the latter being reported, more frequently than ever, you might think it would be worth someone’s while to reverse-engineer the system to add that so-far elusive "Undo" command.

My favorite tale concerns a landlady – again, in my part of the country – who had been moaning for years through every media outlet that would listen that she had been erroneously declared dead. But her story seemed incoherent and inconsistent, which is why I am not linking to it. Further investigation suggests that it might not have been so much an error by a civil servant as a parting fuck-you from a disgruntled parting tenant who had her declared dead after repeatedly but unsuccessfully trying to contact her for the refund of his deposit.

So if you were trying to think up an inexpensive and thoroughly modern IT-enhanced way to tip an enemy into the shit and have them wallowing around in it for months, even years, now you know. Don’t just announce their passing away, like an accidentally published newspaper obituary: tick the checkbox and make it happen. ®

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He still stings from having to provide proof to the French authorities that he was not a bigamist prior to getting married. Most countries have such a thing as a Wedding Certificate but in France, there is also an official Certificate of Unmarriedness, and it is a right old bugger to find someone to draw one up when you’re not French. In the end, he persuaded a British consul to sign a letter stating that the aforementioned – a person he didn’t know and had never met – was, as far as he could guess, probably not already married, perhaps, maybe, I dunno, I hope not. The French authorities accepted it without further question. More SFTW here. Other stuff at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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