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Obit Writing: Getting to the Heart of Things

The journalist Ann Wroe recently wrote a weeklong blog about her work.

"I don't know what other people's first thoughts may be on Monday mornings," she wrote. "But mine, as the jabber of my husband's radio crawls into my dreams, is 'has anyone died today?'"

That's not surprising. Wroe's job is all about death. She edits and writes obituaries for The Economist magazine.

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"It seems to me like an opportunity to get into dozens of very interesting lives and I find it endlessly fascinating, not in the least morbid," she tells Steve Inskeep. "In fact, we have a tradition in England of rather irreverent and interesting obituaries ...."

The magazine's obituary for Hunter S. Thompson, who committed suicide, begins: "There were always way too many guns around at Hunter S. Thompson's farm."

Wroe says she likes to "get to the point" right away, and "the point may not be the one we first think of."

For playwright Arthur Miller's obituary, Wroe discovered he had been a carpenter. "And somehow that little clue made me realize how beautifully crafted his plays were — that they were like the work of a carpenter putting together a house, if you like."

"I find a mere chronology of a life really doesn't sum up that life for me," she says. "I want to get the texture and the sound and even the smell of someone ... get right inside the essence of that person."

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Notable Passings of 2007

Read selected excerpts of obituaries from The Economist.

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