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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituariesby Marilyn Johnson
Synopses & Reviews
The New York Times comes each morning and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers. Obituaries are history as it is happening. Whose time am I living in? Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed, older than I am or younger? Did she know how to live? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life! Where else can you celebrate the life of the pharmacist who moonlighted as a spy, the genius behind Sea Monkeys, the school lunch lady who spent her evenings as a ballroom hostess? No wonder so many readers skip the news and the sports and go directly to the obituary page.
The Dead Beat is the story of how these stories get told. Enthralled by the fascinating lives that were marching out of this world, Marilyn Johnson tumbled into the obits page to find out what made it so lively. She sought out the best obits in the English language and chased the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. Surveying the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, surviving a mass gathering of obituarists, and making a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all, Marilyn Johnson leads us into the cult and culture behind the obituary page. The result is a rare combination of scrapbook and compelling read, a trip through recent history and the unusual lives we don't quite appreciate until they're gone.
"A journalist who's written obituaries of Princess Di and Johnny Cash, Johnson counts herself among the obit obsessed, one who subsists on the 'tiny pieces of cultural flotsam to profound illuminations of history' gathered from obits from around the world, which she reads online daily — sometimes for hours. Her quirky, accessible book starts at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference, where she meets others like herself. Johnson explores this written form like a scholar, delving into the differences between British and American obits, as well as regional differences within this country; she visits Chuck Strum, the New York Times' obituary editor, but also highlights lesser-known papers that offer top-notch obits; she reaffirms life as much as she talks about death. Johnson handles her offbeat topic with an appropriate level of humor, while still respecting the gravity of mortality — traits she admires in the best obit writers, who have 'empathy and detachment; sensitivity and bluntness.' The book claims that obits 'contain the most creative writing in journalism' and that we are currently in the golden age of the obituary. We are also nearing the end of newspapers as we know them, Johnson observes, and so 'it seems right that their obits are flourishing.'" Publisher Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Every so often, when I'm taking information for an obituary, a caller will try to cheer me up: If I work hard, it will only be a matter of time before I can escape the, ahem, dead end of the obit desk. A common perception with the public, and occasionally in newsrooms, is that writing obituaries is some sort of macabre punishment. Obituaries may once have been consigned to young reporters... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) learning their jobs or old hacks being shown the door, but Marilyn Johnson is here to say that there's, well, life in this oft-overlooked craft after all. In her archly titled 'The Dead Beat,' she takes a sprightly journey around the lively world of obituary writing, which in her view has never been more vivid or interesting than it is today. Beginning with what Johnson calls the British 'Obituary Revolution' of the late 1980s, English and American newspapers have put new emphasis on compelling stories about the newly dead and created a 'Golden Age of the Obituary.' Once faceless and formulaic, the humble obituary has metaphorically transformed itself from Rodney Dangerfield to Jude Law, who played an obit writer in the film 'Closer.' Fans debate obituaries on Web sites, maintain death watches for the aged and infirm and attend conventions for practitioners and admirers. The well-wrought obit is, in Johnson's words, a 'tight little coil of biography' that 'contains the most creative writing in journalism' — a boast not even I would make. Obituaries, of course, have been with us as long as death itself. Johnson, whose interests lie with recent developments, skips the long history of poetic elegies and prose classics such as John Aubrey's 17th-century 'Brief Lives.' She dispatches Alden Whitman, considered the father of the modern American obituary, with a single paragraph. She has little more to say about one of his successors at the New York Times, the incomparable Robert McG. Thomas Jr., who turned out hundreds of deadline gems. Her real heroes are the editors and writers who compose the cheeky, gossipy obits that are the hallmark of the British style. The trend started in 1986 when, almost in concert, the London Times, the Telegraph and the newly formed Independent began to publish quirky, irreverent sendoffs that reveled in a subject's eccentricities and spectacular moral failings. A ballet dancer was a 'homosexual of the proselytizing kind'; a barfly 'rejoiced in daring attractive young women to strip naked ... in return for limitless champagne.' A well-born woman, known for her frequent affairs, eventually found 'the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue.' 'Do they make people like this in the United States?' Johnson wonders. 'If so ... we don't read about them in the obituaries.' More than anything, that's the result of the divergent journalistic practices of the two countries. American editors tend to prefer straightforward, scrupulously factual accounts or the increasingly common 'everyman' obituaries that delve into the lives of people who never made the headlines. Johnson says that the everyman obit is 'a narrative driven primarily by sentiment' and quotes a British writer's putdown of stories about 'the foibles of nonentities.' But you can apply the same complaint to the endless stream of British obituaries about minor nobles and Royal Air Force veterans. Moreover, many rollicking English obits seem to be longer on ridicule than on human sympathy. Still, there's a lot of room on the obit page, and Johnson devotes a couple of chapters to Jim Nicholson, who perfected the Ordinary Joe obituary at the Philadelphia Daily News in the 1980s, and to his descendants around the country. 'Who would you miss,' Nicholson would ask, 'the secretary of state or your garbage man?' Johnson, who is a magazine writer and editor, understands the craft of obituaries and delights in the tantalizing fragments of history that they reveal. But sometimes, as when she devises silly names for an obituary's various elements, she's too clever by half. (Nevertheless, I do like her term 'tombstone' for the clause in the first sentence that describes what a person did and why it was important.) Only in her final chapter, when Johnson describes how she and other obit-obsessives post items and exchange comments on the alt.obituaries newsgroup, does her infatuation turn creepy. 'We create cut-and-paste art ... like junior Robert Rauschenbergs or Picasso manques,' she writes in a paroxysm of grandiose self-delusion. In her more sober moments, Johnson brings a fresh sense of appreciation to the modest but exacting stories that many readers treasure above all others. No one grasped the importance of the job more than J.Y. Smith, the first obituary editor of The Washington Post. He had been a foreign correspondent, a roving reporter and an editor on the editorial page, but he found obituaries 'far and away the most interesting and difficult work I have ever done.'" Reviewed by Matt Schudel, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries...sly, droll, and completely winning." David Halberstam
"[Marilyn Johnson]'s written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough, should live forever. But get it now." Roy Blount
"This delightful quirk of a book is not dark or morose; it's an uplifting, joyous, life-affirming read for people who ordinarily steer clear of uplifting, joyous, life-affirming reads." Los Angeles Times
"While Johnson's analysis of the form and its top practitioners is absorbing, her accounts of the culture of obituary lovers is downright amazing." New York Times
"This is a book about dead people and the journalists who write their stories. But as Marilyn Johnson, the author of this wise and witty volume on the art of the obituary, makes clear, obits aren't so much the literature of death as the celebration of life." Seattle Times
"Johnson...teases an awful lot of life out of her descent into the chronicles of death. In a sense...she has peremptorily crafted her own obituary by writing a dead-on minor classic that should outlive its author by a long margin." San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Marilyn Johnson has been a staff writer for Life and an editor at Esquire, Redbook, and Outside. Her essays, profiles, and stories have appeared in these magazines and others. She has written obituaries for Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and Marlon Brando.
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