The Dead Beat – Marilyn Johnson (2006)

“Obit reading is an act of contemplation.” Marilyn Johnson.

This book is a very enthusiastic ode to obituaries and “tributes” to recently dead people, both hugely famous (or infamous) and then also to the ordinary people who tend to make up one’s neighborhood.

I am a big believer in the philosophy that “everyone has a story,” so it was fascinating to see that others think the same thing. Perhaps I need to start writing obits, because I am always chit-chatting to someone with whom I cross paths – there’s always a story there somewhere, no matter who it is. And sometimes, I think that people are just happy to have someone listening to their story – I don’t think enough people take the time to listen properly in this world today.

Johnson covers all aspects of obit writing, from the history of obits in UK and US, and by using plenty of examples, shows the reader with exquisite care, the joy of a well-crafted paragraph about someone dead. She writes that she thinks the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper is the World Champion for obits, writing them with both irreverent humor and with care without making it crass.

Others mentioned included the magazine, The Economist, which favors the one-page obit (or tribute) to someone who was usually really interested in something obscure. (For example, one tribute was for someone who loved flower poetry. The tribute mentioned the person and her interest, but then took the article to the next level and dug much deeper into the actual topic of flower poetry.) Fascinating stuff, to me at least, and just the type of writing that I like to read.

There is an annual conference for obituary writers (and the fandom of obits) run by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, and Johnson interviews numerous journalist obit superstars who have been influential in changing how obits have been structured since the 1980’s. (They used to be very dry – at least now there is a bit of flavor to them in a lot of cases. I must admit that our local paper runs very ordinary obits, which is a shame as I bet the people who died were much interesting than what is reported…)

The Daily Telegraph, for example, on their main obits page has one sentence summaries of the various people who have died recently and have been selected for inclusion. Such descriptions include gems like these:

  • Dara Singh – “a champion wrestler who became a muscle-bound Bollywood star playing the Hindu monkey Hanuman…”
  • George Lyle – “a member of the Met Drug Squad who raided Chinese opium dens and reported the rise in marijuana…’
  • Roger Caron – “incompetent bank robber and serial escapee known as “Mad Dog” who wrote a best-selling prison memoir…”

Fantastic and hilarious…! And true which makes it even better. Johnson calls them “memorable mischief” which I just love.

This was quite a serious book, but it was written to be relatively light and funny. I really like it because it opened the door to the intriguing world of obit-writing for UK and US, a world which I had only vaguely known before.

It was also reassuring to know that I am not the only person who avidly reads the obits. When we drive by graveyards and cemeteries, I always look for “fresh ones” (i.e. newly dug graves), but that might be a whole other issue altogether. :-)

Another blog that is super-interesting to read about little-known people (this time women in history) is called “Saints, Sinners and Sluts”. It’s really well done and has a fascinating archive to delve through.

And this one is interesting as well: Scandalous Women.

And this one:  Writing Women’s History.

And you knew something to do with the Victorians was going to be slipped into this list:  Victorian Geek.

5 thoughts on “The Dead Beat – Marilyn Johnson (2006)

  1. As for our local paper running very ordinary obits, the obits for non-famous people tend to be written by the relatives, not the paper. Also, depending on the paper, the obits cost more money the more involved the obit is. In the hometown paper in which we pub
    Ished our parents’ obits, the “basic” obit is free (who died, when died, family members, where and when funeral will be held), and anything more costs money is proportion to length. And it is shocking how much they charge. I’ll try to find copies of the obits I wrote for Mom and Dad and email them to you (since you like reading them ;-)).

      • And this one from your dad’s…

        “enjoyed occasional moderate success at tricking fish onto a hook.”….

        I had no idea your parents had led such interesting lives. I think everyone (mostly) does, so it’s always fun to see another side of someone’s family. Thanks for showing me. I can see quite a bit of you in your parents now…(or the other way around)…. :-)

    • Your mum was a v interesting person – very booky. :-)

      This cracked me up: “was a particular fan of the Chicago Cubs, which was a testament to her resilient nature”…. Nice touch, whoever planted that little gem. :-)

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