An obituary enthusiast's plea: Long live the chroniclers of death

Marilyn Johnson shares her obsession in exuberant and elegiac style

Review Journalism


The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

Marilyn Johnson

HarperCollins / 244 pages / $24.95

Newspapers may be dying, but newspaper-writing about dying has never been more robust.

So exalts journalist Marilyn Johnson in this whimsical paean to the obituary, a literary form initiated by death, but paradoxically, Johnson finds, brimming over with vibrancy, wit, and irony - in other words, with the stuff of life.

In The Dead Beat, Johnson describes herself as an obituary junkie. The way others marvel over an orchid's distinctive coloring or the clean bouquet of a wine, Johnson relishes the finely crafted obituary. She trolls newspaper Web sites from around the globe to partake in the choicest delicacies of the day.

One morning it may be the obit of a pharmacist who was reborn as a federal undercover narcotics agent (From The New York Times: "He could pose as a down-on-the-heels narcotics peddler, a flashily prosperous racketeer, a small-time gambler, an escaped convict or a sailor and get away with it"); the next day, it is the send-off for a New York store owner renowned for her ability to match any woman with just the right-fitting bra. ("She was 95 and a 34B," the Times noted.)

Johnson delights in the tributes she reads to the glamorous, to Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn and Johnny Cash (all departures during the same summer, she notes), but she savors no less odes to those who lived and died in ordinary-sized obscurity, like Clementine Werfel ("The coffee drinkers silently accepted what they got," wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "as though Werfel really could turn regular coffee into decaffeinated, much the way that the biblical Jesus turned water into wine"), and musician Eddie Baltimore ("[He] has a mojo bag given him by a voodoo priest," observed The Toronto Star. "He kept red dirt from the Delta in a beautiful coffee-table container. They were beside him as he lay dying of cancer in a bed set up this spring in the living room of his quirky East York bungalow" ).

As scholars dissect the poetry of, say, Emily Dickinson, Johnson pores over the literary structure of obituaries, going so far as inventing names for their constituent parts: the "tombstone," the "song and dance," the "reverse shift," and the "telegraph" (the "stinging telegraph" if it contains a zinger).

Johnson is seriously obsessed, and, as she well knows, her timing couldn't be more fortunate. For one, she is living in what she calls "the Golden Age of the Obituary," when, she argues, the craft of obit-writing has reached its apex in quality. But she also lives in the age of the Internet, when no one need obsess alone. Not surprisingly, Johnson finds a multitude of those who cherish obituaries as much as she does, who turn to the obits page before sports or the comics or any other part of the paper. They share favorites with one other, debate the stylistic strengths of their favorite obituary columns and even gush over the qualities of particular obituary writers - obituarists in Johnson's term - as unlikely an object of groupies as you might expect to find.

And yet, every year obituary lovers flock to the annual Great Obituary Writers International Conference to listen to war stories at the feet of their literary heroes.

Johnson attends one of these deathly affairs in Las Vegas, N.M. (perhaps, she notes, "the highest concentration of obituary writers in the world, possibly in history"), using it as a springboard for consideration of the great flowering in obituary writing across the English-speaking world, at papers large and small. During much of the rest of the book, she visits some of those whom she regards as at the summit of the craft in the United States and Britain. That leads her to an interesting cultural divide in the world of obit-writing, between the American tendency to celebrate the life of local residents by revealing "the extraordinary in the ordinary person," and the British delight in producing vivid, historically rich, gossipy and sometimes downright nasty obits about the famous or high-born.

Either way, Johnson says, the great obituarists share a miner's gift for unearthing veins of telling and surprising detail, evoked for pathos (but, never, it is to be hoped, sentimentality) or mordancy, delivered deadpan or with elegance, to vividly re-create a life.

From the London Daily Telegraph: "Jeanette Schmid, the professional whistler who has died in Vienna aged 80, performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich; she had been born a man and had fought in Hitler's Wehrmacht before undergoing a sex change in a Cairo clinic."

From The Denver Post: "Agate, population 70, is one of those towns that people describe as `blink and you'll miss it.' Lois A. Engel loved living in the blink."

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