Life after death: A book review of The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

Yes, there is life after death.
But it doesn’t involve cryogenics or Christianity.
It’s the obituary: The written tribute that is born immediately after someone — usually famous and otherwise — departs for parts unknown.
Putting it together is not easy.
Besides requiring meticulous research, it also involves managing morbid expectations especially since those considered terminal cases have a bad habit of bouncing back to the pink of health.
That’s not all.
Preparing an obituary more often than not involves disturbing the bereaved, who may find it unpleasant to discover that the deceased left the maid pregnant.
But then again, these complications have failed to prevent Marilyn Johnson — who has written tributes for Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, and others — from writing a book about the whole subject.
“Obituaries have a pull, a natural gravity, for those of us who’ve observed that life has a way of ending,” she says in the book’s introduction. “But however morbidly we arrived at this page, we’ve ended up sticking around, hanging out, admiring the writing, getting hooked on the daily rush.”
Published in 2006, The Dead Beat just about covers the length and breadth of obituary writing in newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Although newspapers in both countries generally employ an obituary writer and an editor, the similarities end there.
Americans are more inclined towards solemnity, preferring to treasure “folksy,” romanticized impressions, even though the deceased while alive was a notorious neighborhood drunkard who asked everyone for some change.
The British, to their credit, are less forgiving, employing euphemisms — if at all — to “aim for some higher truth,” Johnson quotes an editor as saying.
As a result, the book cites an obituary for outrageous British comedian Malcolm Hardee, which was published in the Telegraph.

“He did an impression of Charles de Gaulle, his penis playing the part of the General’s nose. He was also celebrated for a bizarre juggling act performed in the dark and with nothing visible apart from his genitals, daubed with flourescent paint. Fans would greet his arrival on stage with cries of “Get yer knob out.” He was said to be huge in Germany and Sweden.”

But whether British or American, risque or respectful, obituarists, just like anyone else, are prone to quick judgment.
Which explains why Andrew McKie of the Daily Telegraph ran an essay-length correction entitled “The Day I Managed to Kill Off Tex Ritter’s Wife.”

“I apologise unreservedly to our readers for having misled them. More importantly, I apologise to Mrs. Ritter. I am genuinely delighted she is still with us — I came to like her a lot while preparing her obituary for the page.”

Despite these oversights and various other complications surrounding the composition of an obituary, scores of people remain obsessed with them as indicated by frenetic online activity in various usenet groups that Johnson cites in the book.
This prompts her to say that “[i]t’s the best time ever to read obituaries, and I’m here to tell you, it’s a great time to die,” she says.
Amen to that.

Johnson on rewriting

““The great rewrite man, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has the ability, Strum says, “to take scores and scores of scraps and turn them into a beautiful, coherent story, all fully attributed. He asks the reporters who do his legwork, ‘How many steps up to the apartment building where the dead man was found? Did he have on red socks or blue? Was the paint peeling off the building or was it freshly painted? How high were the houses? Were people milling about on the street or were they behind bolted doors? And then he stitches these details together brilliantly. Like a great murder mystery, except it’s all true.””

Marilyn Johnson in Dead Beat: Lost souls, lucky stiffs, and the perverse pleasures of obituaries, in an interview with Chuck Strum, obituary editor for the New York Times, while discussing obituary writer Robert D. McFadden
(Photo taken by yours truly using a Treo 650 and digitally manipulated — to use the term loosely — on Adobe Photoshop.)