Every time a person keels over and dies, one presumes it’s a tragic event. But to a peculiar subset of the population, the passing of a human life is cause for excitement, even morbid glee. These are the obituary writers, and their odd subculture is the focus of The Dead Beat. Author Marilyn Johnson journeys deep into the death-writers’ strange world—probably in more detail than you ever thought you might want.
Early on, Ms. Johnson makes clear the level of her obsession. She describes the arrival of The New York Times each morning, which “never fails to deliver news of the important dead”—“Every day is fraught with significance,” she writes. “I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers …. Other people, it seems, also read the obits faithfully, snip and save them, stand in the back of the old theater, feeling that warm and special glow that comes from contemplating and appreciating what has just left the building forever.”
She also explains that obituaries are “booming as literature and folk art across the English-speaking world,” and points to the proliferation of “ordinary Joe” obits—about normal non-celebrities—as evidence. Ms. Johnson cites The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Rocky Mountain News, among other newspapers, as outlets for these sorts of pieces. She traces their popularity to the Philadelphia Daily News, circa October 1982, when “bright shards of detail and glimmering quotes began to appear, attached naturally and unapologetically to the obits of regular people. People whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public were offered up as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence.”
In one of the book’s more intriguing chapters, Ms. Johnson tracks down a fellow named Jim Nicholson in his socked feet in a cul-de-sac in New Jersey. Mr. Nicholson (now retired) was responsible for starting the tradition of writerly common-man obits at the Philadelphia Daily News; he wrote full-length “feature-style” tributes to recently expired janitors, plumbers, “a grandma known for her love of poker” and other random nobodies, bringing their lives into focus with colorful details and vivid quotes. (He worked eight or nine months a year at the Philadelphia paper and then took sabbaticals to work in counterintelligence.) A prime example of a Nicholson obit: “Society today does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.” The style has been imitated at newspapers across the country.
It’s difficult to imagine a more impassioned advocate for obit culture than Ms. Johnson. She comes at it from almost every angle: the elements of a proper death notice; The New York Times’ obituary editor, Chuck Strum, and the making of the newspaper’s post-9/11 “Portraits of Grief” section; the thrill of writing about deceased celebrities. Her tone is cute and often breathless. In the center of the slim and oddly shaped book is a collection of black-and-white photographs of obituarists who are currently practicing—a harmless-looking group of death nerds if there ever was one. At one point she visits some of them in London, a city that she anoints “the obituary capital” because its four newspapers—The Times, the Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent—are busy “snarling and fighting over their version of the news of the dead, throwing down obituaries like they were dice in some ultimate craps game.” Ms. Johnson describes her orgiastic pleasure when, upon arriving in the U.K., she skips Buckingham Palace and all the museums to “fondle” the English broadsheets in her hotel room, “devour[ing] them while the sounds of the London streets blared through the open window.”
The possibility presents itself that her passion might border on an obsessive compulsion.
Believe it or not, in addition to an online listserve (alt.obituaries, “the obit lovers’ nest”), the obituarists also have their own annual conference, held in 2004 in Las Vegas, N.M., and organized by a 63-year-old public-policy consultant from Dallas named Carolyn Gilbert. The obit writers and their fans trade secrets and commiserate over the challenges of verifying the military records of dead people. Most of the attendees are in their 50’s, which, according to Ms. Johnson, is the “prime age” when experienced reporters usually end up on the obits desk. The whole affair was promising to be a little sleepy when Ronald Reagan suddenly expired, electrifying the attendees and sending some of them scurrying back to their news desks. For just a moment, one could almost share the enthusiasm.
Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter at The Observer.