The mass murderer who liked to take his children to the beach, the playwright with a passion for carpentry, the life model who became a war criminal – obituary writers spend their time looking for interesting and unexpected characters to fill their pages.
“The ones I really enjoy doing most are the people who aren’t known very well,” says Ann Wroe, the obituary writer for The Economist. “They’re often quite ordinary people but have done something extraordinary.”
“You often do get quite a clash where there might be three or four worth doing so I read all their stories and at some point it’s as if a bell goes off in my head and I think ‘that’s a really good story, that’s the story I want to do’,” she says.
With 2016’s flood of celebrity deaths, the work of obituary writers was perhaps more in demand than ever before, but telling the story of someone that readers feel they already know can present its own challenges.
“It’s really difficult with someone well-known,” explains Tim Bullamore, who has been writing obituaries for The Times and The Telegraph for more than 20 years.
“Sometimes there are people trying to push a particular narrative, whether it’s the family or their agents. Even in death, there is PR.”
To dodge the cliches and avoid staid reverence, obituary writers must become prospectors, sifting through articles, autobiographies and interviews, hoping to find the nugget that will reveal the person behind the public image.
“I’m always looking for quirks or funny things or remarks,” says Wroe, whose work enjoys something of a cult following among readers and was collected into a book in 2008.
The evolution of the obituary
Wroe has been at The Economist in various roles since 1976 and jumped at the chance to helm the obituaries section when the job became available in 2003.
“My work was mostly editing and I always thought it would be a nice way to do more writing and obituaries offer the chance to write in a different way from other kinds of journalism,” she says.
Indeed, since shaking off the cradle-to-grave chronological format sometime in the mid-1980s, British obituaries have taken on a livelier, more life-affirming tone. The aim is to reveal something of the subject’s personality, rather than offering up a timeline of their life.
“It’s trying to catch the essence of someone and give the impression they’re talking to the reader,” says Wroe.
“Some are harder to write than others and I can’t always tell why, maybe I haven’t got quite the right way in. I’m looking for some little sentence, some little incident, some word even.”
“When I was writing Harold Pinter I just couldn’t think of the right way in. I had written it as a Pinter play, with silences and pauses, but I didn’t know how to start until I saw a picture of him where he was looking absolutely furious, right into the camera. Then I realised I’d got to write it in a rage as he was often in a rage and that was the key. Sometimes, the key is rather hidden and it takes me a while to find it.”
Wroe occasionally even tries to write the obituaries in the subject’s voice, and recently did so with veteran British entertainer Bruce Forsyth.
As their subjects are dead, obituary writers are in the unusual position of being almost completely free of the threat of libel, though families can still be libelled. As a result, many adopt a tongue-in-cheek approach.
The Times’ style guide boasts a 12-page section on euphemisms covering everything from sexuality to political views. While modern taste doesn’t necessarily call for such an indirect approach, writers are encouraged to include these bits of “code” in their work to make the piece more entertaining.
“If you have a bit of scandal, or something that’s not necessarily what society expects, that can liven the page,” says Bullamore.
“It’s easy to paint a portrait of a perfect trajectory through life, but I’ve never met someone who didn’t fail at one time or another, who didn’t get two points on their license or fail a module at uni[versity], get sacked or have their heart broken.
“Nobody leads a perfect life and I’d be doing a disservice to present it that way, because readers would see it and think ‘How can I live up to this?'”
A revolution on the obituary pages
There is a quiet revolution happening in the obituary pages of British broadsheets, with a push for more diversity and for women to feature more frequently.
“It’s a real problem,” acknowledges Wroe, “But women are often the support or they’re famous because of men; they’re married to them or they’re a muse.
“We’re dealing with people who were born in the 20s or 30s and things were still very imbalanced in the 60s or 70s when they could have been in their prime. It’s different now and women are playing the main roles and thinking the big thoughts. It’s happening gradually, so it will be better.”
For Wroe, whose weekly publication allows only one obituary each issue, the selection process is particularly ruthless and each week begins with a flurry of activity. The individual is chosen around midday on Monday and Wroe has just over 24 hours to submit the obituary.
“On Mondays I’ll be absolutely crazily researching, reading everything I can get my hands on. I Google a lot, I don’t know how my predecessor did it without Google, and I’ll rush to the London library,” she says.
After intense bursts of research and writing, obituary writers have to move on to the next subject, but every now and then there’s cause for reflection.
“I’m not sad [when finishing someone’s obituary] but I often think ‘I wish I’d known that person’,” says Wroe. “Everyone has interests and you become quite interested in them yourself. But then it finishes and you forget and the next one comes down the road.”
“I do get a lot of letters. What I like best is when I hear from the family or hear from people close to them. When I wrote Paul Newman‘s obituary, I got a call from Joanne Woodward [Newman’s wife] who said she really loved it. I think that was the peak of my career.”
Bullamore is more pragmatic: “I’m just glad the deadline is done. I have friends who are wedding singers and can’t remember the couple whose wedding they did the day before and I’m the same, I can’t remember who I’ve written about, I’m onto the next job.”
‘I feel a great optimism towards death’
Telling the life stories of strangers creates something of a removed intimacy that allows the writers to deal with death every day.
“I don’t think of the job as being in the least bit depressing,” says Wroe. “I’ve always believed that you move on to a more intense experience after life, I absolutely believe that.
“When people lose relations, I don’t know what to write in the sympathy cards because I feel a great optimism towards death but that’s not necessarily how they feel.”
“Society still treats death in a really scared way, I think other cultures have a better relationship with it than we do.”
For a job that seems so much to do with death, obituaries offer writers the chance to celebrate life and even reflect on how they might like their own to be recorded.
“Sometimes I think ‘What am I doing trying to do this job?’, Wroe confesses, ‘Am I ever going to properly get what someone was like?’ I have absolutely no faith that anyone is going to get to the bottom of me, so why should I be so presumptuous to think I can do that for anyone else?”
“I’d like to leave behind a nice squabble about whether I should get an obituary or not,” says Bullamore. “A nice squabble, that’ll be fine with me.”