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

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

by Marilyn Johnson

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Overview

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060758769
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/30/2007
Series: P. S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 604,878
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Marilyn Johnson is a former editor and writer for Life, Esquire, and Outside magazines, and lives with her husband, Rob Fleder, in New York's Hudson Valley.

Hometown:

Briarcliff, New York

Place of Birth:

St. Louis, Missouri

Education:

B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.A., University of New Hampshire

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 . . .

Continues...


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.

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

What People are Saying About This

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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Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Despite the poet, death has dominion¿in the hands of Marilyn Johnson and others of her ilk. The writing of obituaries, once shoved into the hands of novice or down-and-nearly-out journalists, has come into its own in recent years. The fine art of honing the human life and spirit to find its essence has resulted in a new generation of writers and readers. Some of us are so addicted, we begin the day with a cruise through the morning paper not for the comics, sports page or horoscopes but for the obits. In reading of people we wish we might have known, we encounter some of the finest (and fastest) writing available. Johnson introduces us to some of those writers, often with a poetry of words to capture their essences. She tells tales out of school and sets aside the old pattern of chronologies as the means of relating a lifestory. Her characters, living and dead, are people we¿d like to have met. I, for one, would like to meet her and she isn¿t dead! Johnson¿s writing is filled with the rhythms and vibrancy of life. An excellent, if unusual, read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Marilyn Johnson has touched on a subject that is with us all on a daily basis, one some of us are secretly fascinated by, others are much more open in their appreciation of, and yet which most of us of us take for granted. That of obituaries. Who writes them, how have they evolved, and why do some of them touch us even though they are written of people we have never known nor even heard of? This book is eye opening and fun. A joy to read and will make one laugh and be touched, often within the same paragraph. A truly quirky celebration of life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Marilyn Johnson¿s `The Dead Beat¿ has been an awakening for me. I had always considered myself as someone who read the newspaper from the first to last page. And yet, I have always been amused at those people who would be drawn to `The Irish Sports Section¿. After reading this book, I realized that I had been avoiding the obituaries and denying myself `perverse pleasures¿. Now, the author may recoil at any suggestion that she exhibits cultish behavior in her chosen craft as an obituarist. But, the passion for her profession shines through with a blend of dignity, respect and a healthy sense of humor. `The Dead Beat¿ is a remarkable tribute to her profession. I particularly enjoyed her homage to many of the pioneer obituarists of the egalitarian tributes. She has done her homework and I appreciate the history lesson. The author demonstrates a reverence for her chosen profession and genuine compassion for the deceased and those they leave behind. I value the education on obituary structures and styles and I came away thinking I had just completed a course in Obituaries 101. Above all else, `The Dead Beat¿ was entertaining and enlightening and I have become a new fan of the obituary. I will no longer avoid this rich section of the newspaper and I may just start searching the online obituary resources as detailed in the book. The notes, references and bibliography are useful and thorough for those who want to pursue more.
Meggo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is quite possibly the worst book I've read in a long time, and is, in fact, virtually unreadable. There is an overall story, but the disorganized way that it's told adds nothing. I was stunned to see that the author is actually a professional writer, as my impression from reading the book was that the author was a middle aged housewife who thought "Judge Judy" was the leading edge in constitutional legal scholarship. The cover was nice, though, I'll give it that.
dogdayspress on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Marilyn Johnson¿s `The Dead Beat¿ has been an awakening for me. I had always considered myself as someone who read the newspaper from the first to last page. And yet, I have always been amused at those people who would be drawn to `The Irish Sports Section¿. After reading this book, I realized that I had been avoiding the obituaries and denying myself `perverse pleasures¿.Now, the author may recoil at any suggestion that she exhibits cultish behavior in her chosen craft as an obituarist. But, the passion for her profession shines through with a blend of dignity, respect and a healthy sense of humor.`The Dead Beat¿ is a remarkable tribute to her profession. I particularly enjoyed her homage to many of the pioneer obituarists of the egalitarian tributes. She has done her homework and I appreciate the history lesson. The author demonstrates a reverence for her chosen profession and genuine compassion for the deceased and those they leave behind. I value the education on obituary structures and styles and I came away thinking I had just completed a course in Obituaries 101. Above all else, `The Dead Beat¿ was entertaining and enlightening and I have become a new fan of the obituary. I will no longer avoid this rich section of the newspaper and I may just start searching the online obituary resources as detailed in the book. The notes, references and bibliography are useful and thorough for those who want to pursue more.Note: This mini-review was printed in the literary anthology 'hoi polloi - A Literary Journal for the Rest of Us'.
lmnop2652 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Who knew that there's such deliciousness and an entire culture of obituary writing? I loved the author's passion for her topic and her adventure on her quest to find the best--define "best" on your own--obits written. Too bad most newspapers are still so stodgy and leave little room for creativity when they strip most obits to mere skeletons of the rich--define "rich" on your own--lives of those who have passed, leaving what was written about them matching the ultimate physical remains.
jtlauderdale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Somewhat entertaining look at the recent (last 20 years or so) revival of the art of writing obituaries. Ms. Johnson traces the current interest in this form and introduces us to some of the writers as well as obit enthusiasists of several varieties. Perhaps a bit cavalier but enjoyable. I certainly pay more attention now to the news-type obits I see in the several newspapers I scan every day.
extrajoker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
first line: "People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years."I didn't like this as much as I'd hoped, maybe because I didn't much care for the author's "voice." It's not her irreverence: I expected that, and it's a quality by which I'm generally more amused than offended. It may just be that she dwells too much on her own obituary hobby/passion, and so she herself is too "present" in the book.On the other hand, this book offers an enjoyable look at prominent obituarists' careers and contributions, as well as the evolution and various cultural approaches to obituary-writing. And the many obituary fragments are also interesting.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I mentioned to a librarian friend that I was reading this book, she said she thought the subject was morbid. Not so at all! I've always been a reader of obituaries, even in newspapers that circulated in areas where I knew no one. Finally, I find a kindred spirit in Marilyn Johnson. All but one chapter was really lighthearted. The chapter on the death of an obituary writer was different, sadder, more poignant. Lots of great web-links and places for finding great obits.
thornton37814 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a genealogist, I am quite familiar with obituaries. I use them all the time to add evidence in support of a date or relationship. The type of obituary with which I am most familiar is the one that is written based on a template which survivors complete at the funeral home as part of the package deal. This is not the type of obituary that the author of this book devours. Instead, she sings the praises of professional obituary writers employed by some newspapers who write the obituaries of famous celebrities as well as lesser known persons. Apparently this type of obituary has a somewhat cult-like following. The writers themselves know who is old and hasn't passed away yet, who is in poor health and could die at any time, etc. and begin researching so that they need only add the pertinent details of the death to their prose. Different obituary writers even employe different styles which the author has categorized. I fear that this author would include the type of obituary that I most enjoy in her classification of obituaries that read more like a telephone directory. The writer concentrates so much on her favorite type of obituary that she almost neglects to mention the reasons most people read the obituaries in their local papers--to make sure they are not among the deceased and to see if any of their friends have passed away. In spite of its weaknesses, this book does provide insight into persons obsessed with reading (and writing) obituaries of this type.
NielsenGW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The culture of obit reader and writers comes together in Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat. It's a funny romp through the world of those whose job it is to ensure that the recently departed get a proper send-off. She gives a deserving nod to the famous and dead, but concentrates (rightfully so) on the Ordinary Joe obit. These are where the most fun can be had.
oldman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson is a book about obituaries. It is not a laugh-out-loud compendium of funny, sarcastic or silly obituaries all in a catalogue form. It tells the thinking, feeling and prose (or poetry) used to make an obituary. Obituaries are recent additions to the culture, and are not even common in some cultures now. An obituary is a final printed notice of one¿s death. Such a notice can be simple, just listing the notification of death, who survives and where the last services are to be. Other obituaries though, can be monuments to a person¿s life. What that person did, how he did it and the contribution to society for the activities of the life lived. Certainly some obituaries can be humorous, but others can be sad, or even bring tears. A part of the book describes a slice of our society who read and revels over obituaries. Some newspapers have this sort of style, others that style. The last chapter sums up well what and obituary should be and why. For me, this book was an easy read; I finished it over two days. The chapters are well-constructed and there is a comfortable sequence to the topic. The multiple examples of ¿obits¿ were entertaining and enlightening. I introduced to a sub-set of people in our society who perceive life differently than many of the rest of us. She provides many Internet sites to find ¿obit.¿ Though I do read obituaries occasionally, I am not of the stripe that read daily and revels in the words and look to feel as an introduction has occurred just by reading this bit of a person.I will give this book 3 ½ stars.
varielle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Obituaries are a slice of history. Marilyn Johnson chronicles the rise of the modern obituary complete with intersecting lives, forgotten history, and the fascinating patterns involved in the demise of the obscure and the famous. A quirky and fascinating read that will have you scanning the obit pages of your paper with a new eye.
heyjude on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating intro to the fine art of writing obituaries and an uncomfortable look at some of the genre's cult-like followers.
osmium_antidote on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book - it was recommended by my husband. I had no idea that so many people were fans of obituaries. The book also discusses how to identify a good obituary and where to look for them, if you're interested in that sort of thing. We bought newspapers this weekend just to look at our local obituaries.
PointedPundit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I will admit it. I am fascinated by obituary columns.I am not talking about death notices; hose stale pieces telephoned into news desks by funeral directors on deadline. No. I am talking about those well-written, free-wheeling stories about someone¿s death. Written with care, the obituaries I love are cultural snapshots. They tell the stories of individuals who played a vital role in the lives of their families, fields and communities. The truth about their lives is almost always stranger or funnier than fiction. The researched and polished obit is a vital record. It is a great read. Marilyn Johnson, who counts herself among the obit obsessed, provides the reader with a funny and fascinating tour of the world of the obituary. Starting with a visit to the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference, she explores this written form of journalism as a scholar. With grace, charm, insight and wit she delves into the differences between British and American obits, as well as regional differences here in the U.S.A. Illustrated with poignant examples, she relates the life stories of a school lunch lady who spent her evenings as a ballroom hostess; a pharmacist moonlighting as a spy; a Manhattan retailer who helped women find the proper bra size. ¿She was 95 and a 34B.¿Marilyn Johnson celebrates what many of us know. People lead unusual lives. Fortunately, for obit lovers, those tales are told in warm, funny and appreciative ways after they die. Penned by the Pointed PunditThursday, September 07, 200612:31:13 PM
maggiereads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As we age, some things just naturally occur: we lose a little hair, we wrinkle a little around the eyes and we begin to hold the newspaper further away, as we read the obituary page. Yes, the aging process gently leads us to the daily reading of obituaries.In our 20s and 30s, we just glance over the names of the newly departed. If we know the person, we skip to the last sentence to address the donation check or make visitation plans. In our late 30¿s through early 50s, we start reading deeper into the announcement, looking to aid survivors by phone calls or food. When is it we start to focus on the age of the deceased as less a curiosity and more a barometer to our own longevity?As you read obituaries, you start to wish they conveyed more of the person¿s past spirit. The articles contain the basics, yet they miss the essences that made a life essential on earth. As Marilyn Johnson says in her new book, The Dead Beat, ¿A little life well lived is worth talking about.¿Author Johnson claims this is a good time to die. ¿Historians tell us we are living in the Golden Age of the Obituary.¿ Three of the biggest papers in America have reporters who report only on the departed¿an assignment known fondly in the business as the ¿dead beat.¿The obituary section, usually assigned to insubordinate reporters as punishment, became an opportunity to weld ink pens filled with bittersweet sentiments. Banished to the basement, reporters figured no one would be reading their work so why not jazz it up. They even took to mock announcements, giving overly flourished eulogies, punctured with an atmosphere of hush, to saintly ghost that were never born.Famous people require a reporter to research their lives and have the obituary written months in advance. These two-to-three, column-long missives called ¿canned obituaries¿ are ready when it is time for the second act.Violet-eyed, Elizabeth Taylor¿s obituary has been written and rewritten as the actress struggles with continuing health issues¿multiple broken backs, life threatening pneumonias, hip replacements and now congestive heart failure. One eager reporter, in the early 90s, leaked her canned obit to the presses. After reading them she said, ¿The best reviews I ever had.¿
trav on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have to say that this is a neat book. It even sports a neat trim size and design. It's written by a prolific obituary writer and a real fan of obits. And I mean a REAL fan.The book chronicles obit conventions, websites (celebrity death beeper at deathbeeper.com andfindagrave.com), bios of obit writers and offers up critical analysis of obit styles. She contrasts the styles of various newspapers. Mainly those of London papers with ours here in the States. I found this organizational structure a lot better than other "survey of journalism" books, which usually just line everything up chronologically.But if obits are what drew you to this book you may be a little disappointed, as I was. The author spends a lot of time talking, not so much about obits but about the reporters who write the obits. The book is brimming with mini-bios of a bunch of people that no one outside of the obit's fanatical following have heard of. And this gets a little tiresome. Like all good fans, the author over-hypes the obit and its small circle of practitioners. For example, the author says in 1986, competition between London newspapers was such that it spawned "nothing short of a revolution, the Obituary Revolution, which sent shock waves through the English-speaking world and created a generation of fans."Really? Shock waves through the English-speaking world?I would have gladly traded some of the bio information and hype for a few more gems like this obit written by Dougals Martin:"Selma Kock, a Manhatten store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly though a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."Another neat section was the one where the author talks about euphemisms, offering these one-liners found in newspapers:He joined the choir eternal. He's gone to the rainbow. She went to paint the pearly gates. She was promoted to Glory. He earned the golden halo. Left to play accordian in Jesus' band. and my all time favorite,She accidentally went to Jesus.This is a good read for those who read the obits on a daily basis and want to gain some critical insights and maybe some folks who like biographies, as this touches on dozens of journalists past and present.
starmist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
MontzieW More than 1 year ago
The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by by Marilyn Johnson is a book I picked up from the library by chance. I am a nurse and one of the odd habit nurses have is looking at obituaries, weird, I know. We check to see if we know anyone we helped, especially if working in a nursing home recently or part time. Odd habit but apparently others have it too. Well this book shows the strange obits out there, the different styles of writing obits from different parts of the world, different styles from various writers of obits, unusual lives of those departed, and strange timing of deaths of multiple people. Some places in the book was a bit dry but for the most part it was very interesting and ...well, I was going to say 'full of life' but that would be inappropriate now wouldn't it? Very interesting anyway. Enjoyed the book greatly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made by a big shrub and can fit at least 15 cats
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Here's how to make a book about death fun. From the Poe raven on the front to the death of newspapers to their rebirth on the net, Marilyn Johnson really buries you in her passions. These are real ghosts that are made to come alive.