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LIVE from the NYPL Presents "Dead from the NYPL": The Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

October 27, 2008

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While a chill has crept into the evening air, and Halloween and the Days of the Dead are upon us, Ann Wroe, co-author of The Economist Book of Obituaries and its current editor of some of the best obituaries in the world, discusses the making of obituaries, their thrills and pitfalls, their rewards, and their insidious influence with Marilyn Johnson, who has studied the art and peculiar habits of obituary writers around the world and is author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Daniel Okrent, who was the first Public Editor for the New York Times and the creator of Rotisserie League Baseball begins every day (for the past 40 years) turning to the New York Times obit page to see who has died and how they have lived. In recent years, he pays ever more attention to how old they were. It is impossible, Wroe says, to write obituaries for a living and not be drawn into musings on life and death. For her, each obituary is in fact "a progress report on a life that continues, somehow, elsewhere".

For the first 150 years of its life, The Economist magazine did not bother to record the lives of the dead. Since 1995 it has relented, and the Obituary page?odd, quirky, poetic, sometimes shocking, in the best British tradition of the craft?has become a favourite with readers. Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, Hunter S. Thompson, Charlton Heston and?in a famous double-header?Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley, have all been commemorated or eviscerated there. Rather than somber records of death, Economist obituaries are celebrations of all that is weird or wonderful, repulsive or inspiring, in human life.

Nothing is better for the soul than a good, bracing look at eternity. And here to peek into the abyss?with brisk advice for those who hope to leave in their wake a three column obituary, instead of a mere two?are the writers, Ann Wroe and Marilyn Johnson, whose business is to usher out the dead. Do we want the pretty stories in our obituaries, or the dirt? Daniel Okrent will weigh in on this discussion and ask: What?s wrong with reading obits as entertainment? And is it better to run a youthful photo or a wrinkled one?

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About Ann Wroe

Ann Wroe is the Obituaries and Briefing Editor of The Economist.

She Joined The Economist in 1976 to cover American Politics, and has held the posts of Books and Arts editor (1988-1992) and American editor (1992-2000). She is the author of five books, among them Pontius Pilate : The Biography of an Invented Man and Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself. She is married with three sons and lives in London.

  

  

About Marilyn Johnson

Marilyn Johnson is the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiff, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, in which she turned a fascinated eye on journalists whose job description it is to bring the dead back (briefly) to life.

Other than outrageous oddities, like the man who drove hundreds of nails into his skull, or the transsexual whistler, the most compelling subjects in the thousands of obituaries she read were librarians. The subject of her next book are those curious, intelligent, mysterious people, whose job it is to save us from being buried alive by the information age, Librarians. Marilyn Johnson has been credited with making the creepy profession of obituary writing cool.

About Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent concluded his term as the first Public Editor of the New York Times in 2005. He has published four books--most recently Public Editor Number One. Okrent worked as the co-creative director of Our Times, an Illustrated encyclopedia of the twentieth century; he is the inventor and founder of Rotisserie LeagueBaseball; he was a featured commentator on Ken Burns's PBS series Baseball, and has appeared in Woody Allen's, Sweet and Lowdown.


 

   

About Paul Holdengräber

Paul Holdengräber is the Director of Public Programs?known as "LIVE from the NYPL"?for The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library.