Reading obituaries in the New York Times can be fascinating, whether or not you've heard of the person.

Exactly. Did you see the one today? The Nazi ski champion mountain climber who tutored the Dali Lama? You could not make this up. I became completely addicted in 1986, when the scientist who isolated Vitamin C and the scientist who isolated Vitamin K died within one day of each other. Their obits ran side by side. It was something magical.

Why are obits so captivating?

Obits are charged with emotion and significance. Some of the most moving stories appear in the hybrid obit about an ordinary life, which I wrote about in the book, such as the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" after September 11. And the Times-Picayune has been remembering every Katrina victim and writing these stunning short stories with incredible details.

You describe obit writers as regular people who spring to life when bad news hits. Do you think that could describe journalists in general?

I guess it would, except an obit writer has a particular morbid attraction. If you had been in that room of obit writers [at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference] when they got the news that Ronald Reagan had died, it was like an electric shock. It was like the Beatles had just come on stage. It's like history is the Grand Canyon, and you are right on the lip of it.

If you could invite three dead people to dinner, who would you invite and why?

Well, let's see. I'm going to pick three people who died in the last couple weeks. There's this one from the Daily Telegraph: Sandy Fawkes, who was famous originally because as a baby she was abandoned in a London canal and rescued. She married a guy who turned out to be a serial killer. Then she became a drunk journalist, an eccentric British character who sits on a barstool insulting people from morning to night. Fluff Bower, one of two RAF nursing sisters who landed on Normandy on D-Day. And Sanora Babb, whose obit I read in the L.A. Times. She wrote a book about the Dust Bowl that was due to be published, but The Grapes of Wrath came out first. So they shelved it. A university press published it in 2004, and people were saying it was better than Grapes of Wrath.

Do you find it strange that in this modern world, you still have to write "passed away"?

I think it's hilarious. Especially in the small-town papers and in the South, they're wonderfully creative. There was one in the Houston Chronicle: "...accidentally went to Jesus." Well, "died" is such a bummer of a word.