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RECENTLY I HAD a call from the East Coast asking me about a rumor that a prominent Utahn had died. I had not heard the rumor, so I checked news wires and talked with the city editor to see if there was any truth to it.

There was not - but in the process of asking those questions I actually played a key role, unwittingly at that, in spreading the rumor throughout the valley.Only a few minutes later, the person in question called the paper to say, as Mark Twain did, "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Since I am in the news business, I had to verify the rumor, and so I still don't think there was any other way to respond to it.

But it caused me to reflect on both rumors and death.

It's surprisingly easy to spread a rumor, even if you don't intend to, just by re-stating something one person told you to another person.

Even if you don't believe it.

Rumors are often harmful and upsetting, but in spite of any lack of evidence, most of us just can't resist mentioning it to someone, usually with this proviso: "Just between us . . .

Rumor is a pipe

Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,

And of so easy and so plain a stop

That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,

The still discordant wavering multitude,

Can play upon it.

- Shakespeare, "King Henry IV"

Views of death in our society are even more interesting. We always seem to want to put someone 6 feet under prior to the appropriate time. When I was a child, I remember my father meeting someone on the street and then saying, incredulously, "I thought he was dead!"

The older we all get, the more likely we are to suspect the worst fate for each other. But if you think about it, most of us have serious enough problems getting proper recognition for what we do while we're living - without having the same people think that our contribution is so finite that we actually passed away without notice.

Sometimes you haven't seen a person for a long time - and instead of thinking he or she has moved - you take it a step farther and assume the person has died. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Nothing is certain except death and taxes."

We know it will get us all eventually, but why bring it on prematurely?

Francois de Salignac's classic statement had a different intention, but it can be applied here too. "Do not men die fast enough without being destroyed by each other?"

Any of us would presumably hate to lose either an old friend or someone else whose contribution to society is valuable. John Donne said, "Any man's death diminishes me."

Finally, note this comment from Samuel Butler: "In old age we live under the shadow of Death, which, like a sword of Damocles, may descend at any moment, but we have so long found life to be an affair of being rather frightened than hurt that we have become like the people who live under Vesuvius, and chance it without much misgiving."

That's a good thing, because too many of us seem to wish it early on others. Some are so bold as to express a mistaken belief of a person's untimely death to his or her face. "Good grief, it's you, Bill! I thought you were dead!"

Anyone who has had to face such a greeting would not forget it any time soon.

Rumors of death should be avoided like the plague.