Friday, March 10, 2006


Marilyn Johnson's new book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, celebrates the "cult and culture" of obituary writing, as practiced by the masters of the craft.

Writing death notices is a lost art for many newspapers, in which the obits are no more lively than their subjects. Too many are fill-in-the-blank bios written by morticians and their grief-stricken clients, and only lightly edited by the papers prior to publication. It often takes a journalist to tease out the interesting details of a person's life, and to weave them into something that could pass for literature (let's call it "obiterature").

The profound pleasure Johnson takes in reading the morning obits is one familiar to genealogists:

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. [Link]

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