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Mysteriously Premature Death Certificate

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Want a sure-fire plot thickener? Have the heroes find out that the criminals they just encountered were declared dead long before they met them!

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
marcoasalazarm on Dec 13th 2018 at 11:05:13 AM
Last Edited By:
marcoasalazarm on 11 hours ago
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

Do We Have This One? Now with name crowner:

The criminal investigation is undergoing like any other, with fiends doing mysterious and insidious things and the cops trying to figure out what they're planning before it's too late.

But there is a sudden complication, a sign that things are more dire than they first seemed: the crooks that have been taken out so far and are rotting down in the morgue, or in a best-case scenario were arrested and are now being held? They were declared dead some time prior to the events of the story, with official certificates and all. Bonus points if the coroner that makes mention of this is the very person that signed the death certificate (which means that they are now dealing with having to tell the investigators that "You Have to Believe Me!").

This is a sign of many things, but the regular possible reasons are:

1) There is a conspiracy going on, dastardly enough to "pre-kill" its members, so that when whatever they are being forced to do finally kills them they will be unmourned.

2) The crooks are mercenaries, professional and well-connected enough to become "un-persons" so they can act with impunity. And if they are not the ones with the connections, then their employers surely are, which leads back to the "conspiracy" bullet point.

3) The living dead are involved in this somehow.

Subtrope of Legally Dead. Contrast Dead All Along. Compare Chekhov M.I.A.. A sure-fire method to declare that Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot. A Prematurely Marked Grave is one of the ways this can manifest.

While there is a connection to Death Faked for You and Faking the Dead, the former Trope mostly showcases the "being declared dead" part as a reward provided by a third party at the end of the story so the hero can spend the rest of his life (or until sequels come) not having to bother about being hunted by both his enemies and the law and the latter Trope mostly showcases the hero executing a plan so he will be declared dead (or exploit someone's misconception that they are dead), while this Trope is about the plot twist that comes when someone (often a protagonist) discovers said declaration. "Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated", which is the Lampshade Hanging by one of the "dead" characters that they were declared dead, may ensue.

Listing possibilities: Mystery Tropes, Crime and Punishment Tropes, Horror Tropes


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 

  • Hero Mask: The first two Mask users that appear in the series, Serial Killer Jeremy "Grimm" Payne and Theo Lowe, are prisoners that the cops discover were reported dead some time before the series starts (Theo is especially driven to try to go back to his family because of this). Turns out that they were taken by medical Mega-Corp LIVE Corporation to be used as guinea pigs for the Masks, especially because of a bug that the Corporation hasn't been able to get rid of: the Masks' powers are Cast from Lifespan.


  • In The Charm School, Soviet spies are being trained to pass as Americans in a mock American village, with kidnapped Americans teaching them how to perfect their accents. The male "trainers" at the facility are former Air Force pilots in training who have been declared killed in flying accidents, which is told to them by the one of the Soviet agents that abducted them (with the obvious implication that it will become truly official if they try to escape).

    Live-Action Film 

  • Die Hard 2: John Mc Clane discovers that General Stewart's soldiers have been declared dead in action with their bodies never found after killing a few of them early in the film and running the fingerprints of one past his friends in the LAPD. He even calls it a sign that the man was a professional mercenary.
  • Dead Heat: One of the early signs that the rash of violent robberies that have been plaguing Los Angeles for the past few weeks is stranger than it looks is when Rebecca Smythers, one of the forensic experts, points out that a few of the people who committed the robberies were in the morgue before, and she's sure of this because she made the autopsies and signed the certificates herself. Her supervisor Dr. McNab, who is the man who stole said dead bodies so he could resurrect them and use them as muscle for his Get Rich Quick Scheme, tries to dismiss her as being confused, but Smythers essentially says "look, I swear I cut these guys up earlier this week! Look, there's the stitches!".
  • Extreme Prejudice: The opening Avengers, Assemble! montage of Major Hackett's black-ops team has them all cheerfully reuniting at the airport... and then the film showcases their military records, complete with mention that they were all allegedly killed in action and the government Never Found the Body. Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (The Hero of the movie) eventually gets hold of said records after having fought (and killed a few members of) the team, and instantly figures out that they're black-ops.
  • Shooter: The supervisor of FBI Agent Nick Memphis mentions in passing during a call to Nick that the goons that abducted, tortured and tried to assassinate him (and were killed by Bob Lee Swagger) were declared legally dead years before, and asks Nick what the hell is going on. Nick, who now knows without a shadow of a doubt that the people who killed the Arch-Bishop of Ethiopia (and framed Swagger, and tried to kill him) are members of a Government Conspiracy, tells her to not tell anyone else for the time being.
  • In Star Wars: A New Hope, after capturing the Tantive IV, Darth Vader tells an Imperial officer to send a distress signal from the ship, and then tell the Imperial Senate that all aboard were killed. Whether or not anybody in the Senate ever got suspicious goes unsaid (not that it matters, because a few scenes later Leia is told by Tarkin that the Emperor abolished the Senate), but once they arrive to Yavin Leia is told that the Rebels got wind of that information and one of the generals tells her that he's glad to see she's safe.
  • Brazil: After Sam manages to hack into the government's files and declares Jill dead so the government will stop looking for her, having become Mistaken for Terrorist thanks to his bumbling, a government raid team breaks into the apartment where they're hiding and Jill is shot dead while trying to resist arrest. A later scene has one government official acting incredibly puzzled at the fact that Jill's been declared dead twice, and sure enough, with physical evidence that Sam tampered with government files, he's accused of this among a long litany of crimes (some of them alleged), the most serious of them (at least in the eyes of the man that reads them all to Sam) is wasting the Ministry's time and paper.

Feedback: 60 replies

Dec 14th 2018 at 7:26:46 AM

Not all the examples are Death Faked For You. Examples on that page are people who take a look at the hero at the end of a story and, rather than arrest them, pretend the hero died in the middle of all of the chaos so the hero can run away. This Trope is about the hero investigating a crook that they killed only to find out that the crook (who was very obviously breathing until the hero put five bullets in him) was declared dead some time prior. Most stories use it as a short-hand for "member of a conspiracy" but a few then go to explore why is it that someone who was declared dead by a competent coroner is still committing crimes and the results... well... become weirder.

Dec 14th 2018 at 1:58:54 PM

When you said "obviously", you mean that the "dead" character is walking around on-screen?

Dec 14th 2018 at 5:23:22 PM

Yeah, I mean that. Most of these examples have the character appear still alive, then get killed, and then we find out that the guy's been declared dead some time prior.

I may need to rephrase that. Admittedly, English is a second language to me.

Dec 14th 2018 at 7:20:11 PM

"Most of these examples have the character appear still alive, then get killed, and then we find out that the guy's been declared dead some time prior."

How about cases where the character was thought to be dead but then is revealed to still be alive?

Dec 15th 2018 at 12:05:29 AM

^ It doesn't have to be deliberately faked, just that people thought he was dead. Maybe due to Never Found The Body.

Dec 15th 2018 at 4:34:22 AM

^ So now, between Faking The Dead, Death Faked For You and ROMDWGE, where does this draft stand?

Dec 15th 2018 at 10:44:40 AM

This still works, OK? I know in my heart that this still works. I'm pretty damn sure that this works.

Please, guys, help me. I just did a hell of a lot of adjusting to the draft and I guess it's still not enough.

EDIT: The "Reports" one seems to be when the guy that was declared dead lampshades that he was declared dead. "Faking The Dead" is when someone fakes his death, sure, but more often than not we have a scene at some point in the plot in which we follow the guy doing whatever he does to pretend he's dead. "Death Faked For You" is "Faking The Dead", but it was done by a third party and (pretty often) paints the faking of the death as a kind of reward given after the hero does all of the crazy stuff that the plot followed so that he can live the rest of his life in (theoretical) peace, and often it's a sign that they're Let Off By The Detective.

This one is about an investigation plot doing a twist because the investigators find out that a suspect that is dead right now, because they killed him earlier in the story, was officially declared dead some time before they killed him (with the implication that all other perpetrators in his group are also declared dead someplace, if they look hard enough). If one of the other guys goes all "golly, I really wish that we didn't had to be declared dead to become part of this outfit" at some point, that is "Reports Of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated". Bonus points if the guy that says this is the guy that declared them dead and is going all "wait a second, don't you look at me like that; I did everything I was supposed to do, I followed procedure! As far as I knew when I signed that certificate the guy was dead, fellas! You Have To Believe Me!"

Dec 15th 2018 at 3:54:52 PM

^ That's... Too specific a case...

Dec 15th 2018 at 4:47:27 PM

Well, hell, I don't know. Still, I managed to scavenge at least five examples and I'm pretty sure that there's more out there, so this may (and I admit it's a big "may") be tropeable.

Dec 15th 2018 at 6:20:17 PM

So what is the core of the trope? A character who was declared dead and is then killed off for real? The twist of someone having been prematurely declared dead? Something else? I do think you could have a trope, however I'm not entirely sure what the trope is.

Dec 15th 2018 at 9:48:07 PM

The twist of someone having been declared dead prematurely, I guess, and this discovery being made in the middle of an investigation. I guess that there are examples in which the people declared dead have been placed in custody, but most of the examples of this specific Trope that I can think of and I have written so far have the cops finding this out after the crook resisted arrest and they had to shoot him.

Dec 15th 2018 at 10:04:19 PM

Put another way, the other Tropes are about the guy who is faking his death. This is the Trope of the schmucks that find out he's faking his death.

Dec 15th 2018 at 10:30:17 PM

^ But that's 2 sides of the same coin.

Dec 17th 2018 at 8:12:34 AM

Happens in the film Brazil; Sam hacks into records to get Jill declared dead. Later, when she's killed off for real, an official comments that somehow she managed to die twice.

Dec 17th 2018 at 11:50:51 AM

Interesting concept, I'll refrain from hatting or bombing while I wait and see where this goes.

Dec 17th 2018 at 3:13:54 PM

Literature: In The Charm School, Soviet spies are being trained to pass as Americans in a mock American village, with kidnapped Americans teaching them how to perfect their accents. The male trainees at the facility are former Air Force pilots in training who have been declared killed in flying accidents.

Dec 17th 2018 at 7:56:38 PM

In Star Wars: A New Hope, after capturing the ''Tantive IV', Darth Vader tells an Imperial officer to send a distress signal from the ship, and then tell the Imperial Senate that all aboard were killed.

Dec 18th 2018 at 9:08:18 AM

Luke_The_Great: good examples, but just asking (especially because I haven't seen that Charm School book): does anybody finds out about the characters being declared dead on that one? I know the Emperor shuts down the Senate at some point in A New Hope and I think one of the other Rebel leaders says he feels glad to see Leia because of that declaration and he was fearing the worst.

Dec 18th 2018 at 12:43:52 PM

Yes, the American protagonists who are kidnapped are outright told this by their captor.

Dec 20th 2018 at 7:28:40 PM


Additional examples added. Requires Hats.

Dec 21st 2018 at 11:35:24 AM

All right, after a few reads and rereads, I'm convinced that this is distinct from the other tropes it was mistaken for. Here, have my hat.

Dec 21st 2018 at 7:42:58 PM

Maybe the title could be "Prematurely Declared Dead" or something.

Dec 21st 2018 at 9:36:31 PM

Deliberately Premature Death Certificate? ...Hmm, my suggestion is not very concise.

Dec 22nd 2018 at 3:31:11 AM

As far as I can remember, in Silent Hill 2 the protagonist finds his own gravestone on the graveyard, would this be an example too?

Dec 22nd 2018 at 7:27:37 PM

Dunno yet. Although thanks for the info.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 6:12:14 AM

^^ We already have that as Prematurely Marked Grave.

Which should probably be mentioned in the Description of this proposal.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 7:54:10 PM

Unlaunched. I hear that we have unfinished business regarding the title?

Either way, the draft was rogue launched, which we strongly discourage.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 9:31:32 PM

I thought Mysteriously Premature Death Certificate was good enough, we were brainstorming to see if we could find an awesome title. That and I don't see Prematurely Marked Grave mentioned in the description. Those are the only two nitpicks I have, and they aren't worth bombing the draft for. My main objection was the sudden launch without warning coupled with the last-minute title change to Mysteriously Premature Death Declaration.

Dec 23rd 2018 at 10:27:07 PM

"A Prematurely Marked Grave is one of the ways this can manifest".

And this one's on me. My bad. Don't mind posting the Dope Slap on You Tube.

OK, so the possible Trope names so far...

—Mysteriously Premature Death Certificate.

—Mysteriously Premature Death Declaration.

—Deliberately Premature Death Certificate

—Prematurely Declared Dead.

Dec 27th 2018 at 7:40:17 PM

Bumping this one. Need title ideas, or maybe voting on the current options.

Dec 29th 2018 at 1:13:20 AM

I'd recommend a crowner at this point.

Dec 29th 2018 at 8:43:07 PM

Made crowner:

If anybody here has any additional possible names to propose, please do so and I will add them to the crowner.

Dec 29th 2018 at 9:14:47 PM

When reading the title i was expecting a case of a victim found dead, and later on the paperwork reveals the victim was declared dead before being killed, which means the victim was un-alived by some conspiracy which involves more than just the killer and the motive may be tied to the legal need of a death certificate

The proposed trope is more like "this job requires a death certificate"

I think "Deadly Certifications" could be a good title, "Legally Dead Operative" "Declared Dead Doer" hope it helps

Dec 29th 2018 at 10:58:51 PM

Think the Dead Heat example comes closer to what you're saying, Hakatri.

Admittedly, I wrote all the examples I could think off right off the top of my head. Think there's more of the type you mention, but can't recall right now.

Dec 30th 2018 at 7:37:18 AM

What im saying is that this can be split into two tropes, one where a person is victim of a plot to kill him and the killers are so sure of their methods they get him a dead certificate in advance, which also implies the certificate is somehow needed for the plan to advance, i have no idea how this trope could be named and i have no examples, but maybe cases where someone wants to get an inheritance and kills the victim but the victim somehow survives, Soap Operas as a close example of convolution

And the current trope, where the plan involves using legally dead people as operatives in order to leave no trace, the Death Heat example being an Up To Eleven version of this, and i do think Legally Dead Operatives fits better as title

Dec 30th 2018 at 7:54:46 PM

I can do the modifications to the trope, but I need examples for this other application. Or at the very least some help finding any.

Dec 31st 2018 at 1:01:40 AM

^^ using "legally dead operatives" is simply exploited Legally Dead or Death Faked For You.

Well, unless we can gather enough examples...

Dec 31st 2018 at 10:41:46 AM

Think all of the other names we have proposed so far fulfill the trope's purpose because they sound generic enough for any use. "Legally dead operatives" reduces this trope's function strictly to... well, "dead" operatives. If we can't find examples for this other use before launch, then we can surely add them later.

Jan 1st 2019 at 1:19:06 PM

OK, whoever placed "Crooks Only Live Twice" on the Crowner... you just made me laugh like a maniac for five minutes straight. Thank you.

Jan 1st 2019 at 8:05:42 PM

I think the title needs to distinguish this somehow from any other case of people being alive when everyone thought they were dead. I think referring specifically to villains or crooks is a good idea.

Jan 2nd 2019 at 12:04:05 AM

Mr. Draft maker, you might be too fixated on criminal mystery stories when you first made this draft.

I'm asking whether or not this is an issue, either for you or for everyone else.

Jan 2nd 2019 at 11:50:06 AM

When I started the draft, I wrote it the way I wrote it because the examples I could think of all fit the same pattern. Now, if you guys can help me find examples of heroes that were assumed dead until they were arrested (or killed "again") and plots in which people make someone Legally Dead (accidentally or otherwise) so they can hunt him down and kill him (or at the very least make his life hell, again accidentally or deliberately) at their leisure, then I will sincerely appreciate the help.

Jan 2nd 2019 at 4:23:24 PM

  • Big Hero 6: Professor Callahan (was that his name?) was presumed dead after the big fire that consumed the university building that held the science fair. Later on, when the Big Hero 6 is hunting the villain "Yokai", the group managed to corner him and Hiro gives him a Dramatic Unmask... Which reveals that he's Callahan.

Jan 11th 2019 at 1:06:09 PM

Bump for visibility and crowner votes