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

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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...
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The Dead Beat

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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.

Finalist for the 2006 Discover Award, Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
A self-described practitioner of "careful newspaper reading," Johnson enjoys perusing the day's obituaries, cleansing her hands of newsprint and "[thinking] about universal harmonies." Like the fact that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Johnson revels in such coincidences and in the fact that so many celebrities -- Rock Hudson, for instance -- "[slip] below the radar of appreciation until [their] appearance on the obituary page" gives their popularity a boost. (They say there's no such thing as bad publicity!)

Johnson traded in her job as a journalist interviewing celebrities (with stints at Life, Esquire, Redbook, and Outside magazines) for one in a darkened room, writing their obituaries. And she is a writer completely enthralled by her work, the perfect professional to introduce the casual obituary reader to the ins and outs of the genre, like the all-important placement of "the comma." An amusing, often poignant, and continually amazing book, Johnson's first effort is dead on. (Summer 2006 Selection)
Michiko Kakutani
A fetching book about obituaries? Well, yes: Ms. Johnson writes about obituaries with the zeal — and insight — of an avid obit fan, someone who looks at half a dozen newspapers a day and spends hours online, Googling death: reading posts on the alt.obituaries newsgroup and posting favorite obits of her own.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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." (Mar. 1) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Johnson, a former magazine writer and editor who has written obituaries herself, here offers an engaging study of today's obituaries. In reviewing the structure of the typical death story, she points out how those for the famous are largely compiled and kept up-to-date during their lifetimes. Yet her study goes beyond notable people, including stories about the average Joe; notices from a number of different American newspapers are compared, with Johnson examining in particular detail the obituary style of the New York Times and its pieces on the lives of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is also coverage of obituary writing as practiced on the Internet. Ultimately, Johnson considers London the obituary capital of the world and reviews the current styles employed by the four major dailies there. While the topic is specialized, Johnson's writing style makes the book enjoyable. She expresses proper reverence when necessary but generally keeps the subject light, with a humorous tone. Suggested for most public libraries.-Joel W. Tscherne, formerly with Cleveland P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
What makes the obituaries the best part of the morning newspaper?Debut author Johnson, who wrote a few herself during her career as a magazine editor, loves obituaries. Truly-they're the first things she reads in a newspaper. She collects obits that seem to mirror each other, like those of the actor who voiced Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh, and his colleague, who voiced Piglet (the two died within a day of each other). When Johnson travels to London, for example, the first thing she does is ecstatically gather up that city's four great papers "in a haze of pleasure" so she can read their obit pages, which she calls "works of art." Her devotion is the heart of this warm but repetitive book about the craft of reconstructing a person's life in a few squibs. She doesn't provide much structure here as she bops around from an obit-writers' convention in New Mexico (during which time Ronald Reagan died, causing a minor pandemonium) to the aforementioned London in order to query obit-writing's great practitioners. Along the way, she provides some excellent examples of the best sort of obituaries, the ones that awaken you to the greatness of a seemingly small life or serve as a gateway to obscure historical events. Contrary to popular opinion, many newspapers don't have a drawer full of ready-to-go obits that merely need polishing, so readers experience some real journalistic thrills as rushed writers struggle to meet deadline and still find that single unique thing about a seemingly average person. But like all obsessives, Johnson can be a bore; she endlessly enumerates the differences among various newspapers' styles, in particular the divide between the more reticent, euphemistic Americans and thesaucy Brits, who throw spadefuls of scandal over the recently departed. A smart, if longwinded take on journalism's dark art.
David Halberstam
“A charming, lyrical book about the men and women who write obituaries… sly, droll, and completely winning.”
Roy Blount
“[Marilyn Johnson]’s written a warm, funny, appreciative book that, ironically enough, should live forever. But get it now.”
Lee Eisenberg
“A joyful book about obituaries? Absolutely! Marilyn Johnson pulls it off with death-defying grace, insight, charm, and wit.”
Lisa Grunwald
“A beautifully written, funny, and fascinating tour through the unexpectedly lively world of obituaries.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641878916
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/31/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilyn Johnson

Marilyn Johnson is the author of This Book Is Overdue! and The Dead Beat, which was a Borders Original Voices selection and a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley with her husband, Rob Fleder.

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    1. Hometown:
      Briarcliff, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., University of New Hampshire
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Dead Beat

Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries
By Marilyn Johnson

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Marilyn Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060758759

Chapter One

I Walk the Dead Beat

People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years. Four journalists passed their deadline one day, and their obits filled a whole corner of the paper. What news sent them over the edge? How often do you see two great old actresses take their bows, or two major-league pitchers strike out together? Often enough to spook. Some days sculptors are called, some days pioneer cartoonists. A New York Times editor threw up his hands on June 13, 2004, and ran two almost perfectly parallel stories under one headline: winners of the medal of honor from two eras die; both men saved fellow marines.

It is more than coincidence, and certainly more than the vigilance of an editor on the graveyard shift. It's supernatural. I thrilled recently to a pair of obituaries for Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger in Pooh, and John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in Pooh; the two had gone silent a day apart. I keep them next to my clip from October 25, 1986, the day the New York Times ran side-by-side obituaries for the scientist who isolated vitamin C and the scientist who isolated vitamin K. One was ninety-three; the other ninety-two. One died on a Wednesday, one on a Thursday. One's farewell ran three columns, one ran two. One extracted the vitamin from tons of cattle adrenals scooped from the Chicago slaughterhouses, and also from paprika. One extracted female hormones from tons of sow ovaries. Make something of these differences if you dare. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Edward Adelbert Doisy, Sr., Dr. C and Dr. K respectively, both Nobel Prize winners, left the world together.

Did they get the idea from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? In 1826, the second and third presidents of the United States died in harmony on July 4, exactly fifty years after they signed the Declaration of Independence. The New-York American wrote:

By a coincidence marvellous and enviable, THOMAS JEFFERSON in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two "time-honoured" patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish. It cannot all be chance.

No, surely it cannot all be chance. These are mystical forces, and what better place to find them at work than in the obituaries?

Such coincidences don't occur every day, but it wouldn't take you a week to begin a creative collection. A veteran UPI photographer and a veteran AP photographer. A professor of theology, a pastor, and a nun. An author named Arthur, an architect named Aaron, and an artist named Alois. Two obstetricians. The inventor of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and one of the founders of Evelyn Wood's course in alternate-word reading. The service industry of Hollywood -- a hairdresser, a caterer, and a costume designer. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa! Cary Grant and Desi Arnaz. The head of the tiniest kingdom in the world, the Vatican (Pope John Paul II), and the leader of the second-tiniest kingdom in the world, Monaco (Prince Rainier).

This is not craziness. It's careful newspaper reading. Each day, after I read, I wash the newsprint off my hands and think about universal harmonies. I think about things I haven't thought about since childhood, such as guardian angels. I used to believe we each walked around with a sort of ghost of ourself guiding and watching over us. Is it possible that instead of a guardian angel we each have a double, a guarantee that our work gets done? If we're the sort who isolates alphabet vitamins, there are two of us, just in case. If we are the voice of Tigger, the voice of Piglet backs us up.

A friend of mine used to collect "bus plunge" headlines. You'd be amazed how easy these are to collect. Buses plunge over cliffs and into canyons across the world, and newspaper editors seem resigned to the sameness and predictability of such a universal death. Nearly every headline reads, so many killed in such and such country's bus plunge. Once, the New York Times reported 10 die in brazil bus plunge, though it wasn't even a bus that plunged. It was a truck. But the convention persists.

I think of bus plunges as the generic passing. Many of us took the plunge yesterday. What did we have in common? We happened to be riding the same bus. Perhaps the bus is literal -- ten of us over a precipice in a south Brazilian state. Or perhaps it is metaphoric -- an imaginary bus that on Saturday encapsulates two vitamin scientists and on Sunday bears a cargo of handmaidens to Hollywood.

The bus is an attempt to grasp the unthinkable, of course: one day we're riding along on the highway; the next, we plunge out of sight. Who knows who might be sitting beside us? Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox's seatmate was Watergate counsel Sam Dash. Lawrence Welk's trumpeter and his accordion player played a duet out the door. The queen of the Netherlands and the king of the frozen french fry left the party together. The editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists went off with the lead guitarist for a rock group called the Blasters. I clipped them all. The New York Times comes each morning in a blue plastic wrapper, 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. I open the not-yet-smudged pages of newsprint. Obituaries are history as it is happening. I know one of . . .


Excerpted from The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson Copyright © 2006 by Marilyn Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I Walk the Dead Beat     1
A Wake of Obituarists     13
Name That Bit     29
The Mighty and the Fallen of New York     43
The Irish Sports Page     43
The Franchise     47
Portraits of Grief     57
GoodBye!     69
Attention Must Be Paid     73
Now You Know     83
Ordinary Joe     89
The Egalitarians     115
Tributes     129
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse     143
The Obituary Capital     143
Boiled in Oil, and Other
Terrible Fates in the Daily Telegraph     153
A Few Words About the Code     160
Following the Guardian into the Mist     166
An Independent Bent     170
Lives of the Times     178
Googling Death     183
The Obit Writer's Obit     205
Epilogue to the Paperback Edition     225
Appendix     233
Notes     239
Bibliography     245
Acknowledgments     249
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