Ann Wroe’s Artful Obituaries

Most journalists are always searching for the next big story. Ann Wroe, a writer and editor of obituaries for The Economist, never has to. “Death is the only constant in life, so obituary writers will always have content,” she said the other day. Wroe, who is soft-spoken and seventy-one, chooses her words carefully. A trained medieval historian—she has a doctorate from Oxford—she describes her job as “one where you immerse yourself in the obsessions of your subject, poke into their passions, and try to understand how they saw the world.” Also, she said, “you Google them like crazy.”

Wroe has written obituaries for The Economist since 2003. Born in Maidstone, Kent, in the United Kingdom, she’d always wanted to be a writer—“from the moment when I could hold a pencil,” she said—and made it known, when she joined the magazine’s arts and books department in 1976, that this was her preferred role. “I used to read stories of dead people and found them interesting,” she recalled. “I told the editor at that time that if the position becomes free, I want it.” Over the years, she has written hundreds of obituaries. They are no more than a thousand words, and unsigned, yet Wroe has drawn a tremendous fan base. “I have always liked anonymity, especially as people don’t know whether you’re a man or a woman,” she said. “But in fact, it seems that my name has got out anyway, as I get emails and letters about the obituaries addressed to me privately all the time. And I have to admit that I like that, too.”

Wroe has developed a system that rarely fails: Every Monday morning, she turns on the radio to find out who is dead or whose death people are talking about. “After listening and reading, a bell goes off in my mind and I ask myself, Is this a good story?” She decides whom to focus on by eleven that morning; she must file her copy by Tuesday at about five in the afternoon. During the thirty-six hours or so in which she is working on a piece, she reads memoirs, goes on YouTube to see if she can find the person, and checks social media for stray thoughts from the deceased. She peruses what other outlets have written, but she never lets other articles interfere with how she views someone. “People’s thoughts are intrusive,” she said. “I never talk to anyone for opinions or comments. I depend 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 where they went to school, their jobs, and date of birth should only come if they are very important,” she said. “Otherwise, look at their views on things. Find little details that show how they moved and talked. The things they carried, what 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 that she keeps in her “morgue”—a term she uses to refer to obituaries of prominent people who are still living. She did one on Queen Elizabeth more than ten years ago, and had to keep tweaking it whenever something changed. Some drafts—on Fidel Castro, for instance—remain in the morgue for so long that she almost forgets about them. “I have come to accept that even though we have many advance stories, we still have to do them again at the time of their death, because things change so fast,” she said.

Occasionally, her pieces have not been well received by families of the deceased, or by her general audience. Wroe’s obituary of Osama bin Laden caused an uproar. “His mien was that of the sage, not the killer,” she wrote. “He seldom shed blood himself, though his treasured Kalashnikov, which he carried everywhere, was said to have been wrested in single combat from a Russian soldier in Afghanistan.” Further on, she described bin Laden as a lover of sunflowers who ate his yogurt with honey and took his children to the beach to sleep under the stars. “People expected an attack—they felt I was too soft on him,” Wroe said. “I had to defend myself. I was not writing a rant about him. He was a big character, important in the history of the world. There was more to him. No human is completely bad or evil—and if they are, you give them the rope and let them hang themselves. Tell their story and let the readers decide.”

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She does think she’s made some mistakes in her obituaries: “I did one on a Romanian, and because I don’t speak the language, I used Google Translate and ended up misrepresenting him.” Then there are those pieces that she’s started but that refuse to launch. She recalled trying to write Carol Channing’s obituary and drawing a blank. “I could not find anything interesting enough about her,” she said.

Wroe’s favorite obituaries are of people who were not widely known to the world. She’ll find something remarkable in a Japanese dancer, a prisoner at Guantánamo, a child actor—someone whose story would have otherwise been lost among the thousands of deaths that happen every day. Nor is her writing reserved for humans. One of the obituaries she most enjoyed was on Benson the fish, “Britain’s biggest and best-loved” carp. Benson, often referred to as “the people’s fish,” rose to fame for being easy to catch; she’d attract fishermen who would try their luck, then release her back into the water. Wroe also wrote about Alex, an African gray parrot who was the subject of a thirty-year psychology study.

She was worried during covid—that too many people would die, and that the number of obituaries would overwhelm her. “There were not many deaths of the famous, and there were so many among the not-so-famous, that I did not know who to choose,” she said. “I ended up doing some like the London bus driver, but I wouldn’t say I did many covid obituaries.” Writing about death can be soul-wrenching; Wroe sometimes cries when writing about children. She also wept when she did an obituary for Seamus Heaney, a friend. “Writing about people you knew and interacted with is different,” she said. When her husband died, she did his eulogy. She made it funny.

Lately, Wroe has been working on a book “on the whole business of catching lives,” which will come out next spring. It will cater to readers curious to know how she pulls off her obituaries, as well as to devotees of her biographies (she has published on Pontius Pilate, Percy Shelley, Orpheus, and Saint Francis). She also does the “World In” column for The Economist, in which she writes obituaries of things that are predicted to die, such as Starbucks straws.

She sometimes thinks about how her own obituary will be written. When her turn comes, she trusts that her eldest son, Simon, who is also a writer, will capture the things that made her who she is beyond a woman who wrote about the dead. “Writing obituaries is an art,” she said. “It should be done in a way that, by the time the readers have finished reading, they wish they would have met the person. Even the most ordinary people can have beautiful stories—you just have to want to find them.”

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Mercy Tonnia Orengo is a CJR fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Photo courtesy of Ann Wroe. Photo illustration by Darrel Frost.