August 3, 2006

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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson (Harper­Collins, 2006, 244 pages)

Recently, Slate had an article extolling the virtues of the one-line movie reviews in the New York Times TV guide section.

Pithy and precise, these fortune-cookie-fortune sized bits of commentary are, according to the Slate article, the best writing in the paper.

Marilyn Johnson feels similarly about obits, and not just for the Times but for all newspapers, great and small.

She admires the way obituary writers encapsulate a life (on deadline), often times (especially in the British press) with flair and a bit of cheekiness. And, while most obits are considerably longer than the movie bits or than even the “Portraits of Grief” (the non-obit obits the Times ran about victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11) I agree that they are usually an example of smart, tight writing.

Johnson, a fan of English language obits world wide, gives us some of the better sends-offs plus the rules of obit writing and the characters whogenerate these small biographies in the merry, almost giddy, The Dead Beat. Many of the better obit writers she talks to seem to have sort of fallen into their job and then shown great ability at it. Once the home of cub reporters and newspapermen nearing retirement, current writers for the NY Times, the Times of London, UK’s Guardian and Independent and other US papers such as the Orange County Register and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have made the job a breeding ground for some of the papers’ best writing.

Johnson explains the explosion of “common man” obits as well as the hidden obituary codes. (The best seem to be most common in the British press. For example: “gave colorful accounts of his exploits” means “liar”; “no discernible enthusiasm for civil rights” is obituary for “Nazi”; “tireless raconteur” means “crashing bore.”) We learn about diehard obit fans and get a look at their scathing Internet discussions of some of each day’s better obit offerings.

Like any true-blue obsessive, Marilyn Johnson allows her passion for obits, their authors and their forms to color every page, giving the book the excited tone of a music fan meeting her favorite bands. She doesn’t just elevate the reporters who work “the dead beat” but the importance of newspapers themselves to a community, whose members can only get this type of story on its now-dead neighbors via the written word. Easily digested, The Dead Beat has the same edifying, satisfying feel as a good obit. B

— Amy Diaz


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