MMost journalists are always looking for the next big story. Ann Wroe, author and editor of obituaries for The economist, never has to. “Death is the only constant in life, so obituaries will always have content,” she said recently. Wroe, who speaks softly and is seventy-one, chooses her words carefully. A medieval historian by training – she earned her PhD from Oxford – she describes her job as “one where you dive into the obsession with your subject, look into your passions and try to understand how he sees the world”. She also said, “You google them like crazy.”
Wroe wrote obituaries for The economist since 2003. Born in Maidstone, Kent, UK, she always wanted to be a writer – “from the moment I could hold a pencil,” she said – and popularized it when she joined the magazine’s art and books department 1976 that this was her preferred role. “I used to read stories about the dead and found them interesting,” she recalls. “I told the editors at the time, if the position opens up, I want it.” She has written hundreds of obituaries over the years. Little more than a thousand words and unsigned, Wroe has nevertheless attracted an enormous following. “I’ve always liked the anonymity, especially since people don’t know if you’re a man or a woman,” she said. “But actually my name seems to have gotten out anyway as I keep getting emails and letters about the obituaries addressed privately to me. And I have to admit that I like that too.”
Wroe has devised a system that rarely fails: every Monday morning she turns on the radio to find out who is dead or whose death is being talked about. “After listening and reading, my head is ringing and I’m wondering: is this a good story” She decides who to focus on until eleven this morning; she must submit her copy by Tuesday at 5 p.m. During the thirty-six hours or so that she works on a piece, she reads memoirs, goes to YouTube to see if she can find the person, and searches social media for stray thoughts of the deceased. She reads what other media has written, but she never lets other articles sway her opinion of anyone. “People’s thoughts are intrusive,” she said. “I never speak to anyone for opinions or comments. I rely on my own research and impression of the person I am writing about.”
She prefers to ignore the chronology of the subject’s life. “Things like the way to school, their jobs and their date of birth should only come up if they are very important,” she said. “Otherwise, look at their views on things. Find small details that show how they moved and spoke. The things they wore, which set their rhythm.” She rarely mentions how her subjects died. “The focus is on how they lived,” she explained. “Who they were before death.”
There are pieces she keeps in her “morgue” — a term she uses to refer to obituaries of prominent people who are still alive. She made one on Queen Elizabeth more than ten years ago and has had to keep adjusting it whenever things changed. Some drafts – for example about Fidel Castro – stay in the morgue so long that she almost forgets them. “I accepted that even though we have a lot of backstories, at the time of her death we’ll have to redo them because things change so quickly,” she said.
Occasionally her plays were not well received by the families of the deceased or by their general audience. Wroe’s obituary for Osama bin Laden caused an uproar. “His expression was that of the wise, not that of the murderer,” she wrote. “He rarely shed blood himself, although his prized Kalashnikov, which he carried with him everywhere, was allegedly snatched in single combat from a Russian soldier in Afghanistan.” Took kids to the beach to sleep under the stars. “People were expecting an attack — they thought I was too soft on him,” Wroe said. “I had to defend myself. I didn’t write a rant about him. He was a great figure, important in world history. There was more to him. No man is completely evil or evil – and if he is, you give him the rope and have him hang himself. Tell your story and let the readers decide.”
She believes she made some mistakes in her obituaries: “I made one about a Romanian, and because I don’t speak the language, I used Google Translate and ended up misrepresenting it.” Then there are these pieces that it has started but refuse to start. She recalled trying to write Carol Channing’s obituary and leaving a blank. “I couldn’t find anything interesting about her,” she said.
Wroe’s favorite obituaries come from people not well known to the world. She finds something remarkable about a Japanese dancer, a Prisoner in Guantánamo, a child actor – someone whose story otherwise would have been lost among the thousands of deaths that happen every day. Her writing is not reserved for humans either. One of the obituaries she enjoyed the most was for Benson the Fish, ‘Britain’s biggest and most popular’ carp. Benson, often referred to as the “fish of the people,” became famous because he was easy to catch; She would attract fishermen who would try their luck and then release her back into the water. Wroe also wrote about Alex, an African gray parrot who has been the subject of a thirty-year study of psychology.
Meanwhile she was worried covid– that too many people would die and that the number of obituaries would overwhelm them. “There weren’t many famous deaths, and there were so many of the not-so-famous ones that I didn’t know who to choose,” she said. “I ended up doing a few like the London bus driver, but I wouldn’t say I did a lot covid Obituaries.” Writing about death can be soul-wrenching; Wroe sometimes cries when he writes about children. She also cried when she read an obituary for Seamus Heaney, a friend. “Writing about people you’ve known and interacted with is different,” she said. When her husband died, she gave his eulogy. She made fun of it.
Lately, Wroe has been working on a book “on the whole business of catching life,” which will be out next spring. It is intended both for readers who want to know how she writes her obituaries and for followers of her biographies (she has published on Pontius Pilate, Percy Shelley, Orpheus and Saint Francis). She also makes the “World In” column for The economistin which she writes obituaries for things that are prophesied to die, such as Starbucks straws.
She sometimes ponders how to write her own obituary. When it is her turn, she trusts that her eldest son Simon, who is also a writer, will capture the things that have made her who she is, beyond a woman who wrote about the dead. “Writing obituaries is an art,” she says. “It should be done in such a way that when the readers finish reading they wish they had met the person. Even the most ordinary people can have beautiful stories – you just have to want to find them.”
Mercy Tonnia Orengo is a CJR Fellow.
TOP IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Ann Wroe. Photo illustration by Darrel Frost.