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Marilyn Johnson: The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, And The Perverse Pleasures Of Obituaries

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Readers typically have favorite areas of the newspaper, which they read before turning to anything else. The people featured in The Dead Beat—including author Marilyn Johnson—read the obituaries, and sometimes nothing else. Their compulsion comes not just from a predilection for the macabre, but from a genuine fascination with summarizing people's lives, particularly the quirks and anecdotes that reveal more than age or survivors.

For example, the Atlanta wine-store owner who had Marvin Griffin (former segregationist Georgia governor), Ralph McGill (liberal editor of the Atlanta Constitution), and Martin Luther King Jr. in his store at the same time. Although it sounds like the setup for a punchline, it actually happened, with the three men sharing wine in the store's back room, laughing and swapping stories. Those are the kinds of tidbits Johnson savors: "The vast waterfall of history pours down, and a few obituarists fill teacups with the stories," she writes.


The Dead Beat is full of such unbelievable stories, like the woman who spent 50 years in a mental hospital after her fundamentalist parents committed her for wanting to dance. But the lives of regular people receive the most attention. Johnson has written obits for many celebrities—Princess Di, Katharine Hepburn, Johnny Cash, etc.—but as a writer, she's intrigued by the "everyman" obituary revolution that began in the '80s, when Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News began writing feature-length obituaries (usually reserved for the famous/infamous) for regular people. Nicholson's style, which relied on "bright shards of detail and glimmering quotes," has been copied the world over.

Johnson's breezy style keeps the book moving at a lively pace, but Johnson stays respectful throughout, then tones down her enthusiasm and switches to reporter mode in a chapter about The New York Times' "Portraits Of Grief," which followed the 9/11 attacks. Her unlikely enthusiasm for the form makes the book work, keeping The Dead Beat a quick, generally entertaining read, even though it begins to drag before ending, naturally, with a chapter about the death of an obituary writer.