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


In wry and lucid prose, Johnson takes a mordantly funny look at the history and practice of "the ultimate human-interest story," the obituary.

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

Overall customer rating: 5.000

Unusual topic

by BruceHH on Mar 19, 2010

An interesting book on people who write obituaries and on obituaries themselves. There are often humorous euphemisms and interesting ways of describing lives of the deceased. There are also different styles of obituaries which vary from country to country and newspaper to newspaper. Organized like a series of vignettes it is easy and fun to read. Without having a real plot one can easily stop and return to the same place. A great book to take with you to doctor's offices and test laboratories.


Anything but dead...

by LoisS on Jul 17, 2009

The Dead Beat is a fascinating book not only because the subject is interesting but because Marilyn Johnson is a true wordsmith. She talks about talented and caring reporters and people who have never written before, who not only salute luminaries but also tell why everyday people are special in life and death. Get this book! I finished it and immediately turned to page one and started it all over again.


Gone but not forgotten

by DLRS on Jun 21, 2009

Immanuel Kant said: "Whose life lives on in memory, he is not dead, he is only distant; death is only when one is forgotten." Newspaper obituaries ensure that many people are not forgotten; they did not have to to be good or bad people, just people we may wish to remember, for one reason or another and, indeed, they may have been good or bad. A well-written obituary could, arguably, be described as a literary gem. It is just that there are not that many people around who appreciate this kind of literature. The International Association of Obituarists in America has done much to promote the cause of obituarists and lovers of obituaries. By writing this book, Marilyn Johnson, too, has made a significant contribution to their cause, though a lover of obituaries would probably not call the pleasures one derives from reading well-composed obituaries 'perverse' - curious, perhaps.


A grand book

by Adena on Feb 9, 2009

Obituary writers, like those who toil at the IRS audit department or in the city sewers, are accustomed to the inevitable widening eyes, visible shudders and morbid remarks triggered by their reply to the question: ?What do you do for a living?? Marilyn Johnson?s The Dead Beat tells quite a different story. An avid reader will instantly know she?s in the throes of an accomplished author, gripped by an original perspective that captures the imagination and delights the soul. Johnson declares that an ?obit? writer dwells in a world of humour, poignancy, marvellousness, perverseness, and pleasure. It?s a world celebrating life, and what can be more glorious than that! Ever since the Obituary Revolution in the 80s turned ?the obit page from a holding pen for broken-down journalists? into a fascinating vocation akin to detective work scouring for the key that is the secret of a life just passed, waking up tense every day to wonder if her subject has died yet, the charged life of an obit writer is getting better all the time. And with an aging population about to set fire to the funeral business, it?s never been a better time to celebrate. Johnson?s style is energetic, imaginative and personably engaging: ?One of the great things about this vocation is its expandability...(it) can take you to heroin level in no time? she writes, extending an invitation to walk up ninth avenue in New York to meet the editor of obituaries from the New York Times. The interview is one of many in the United States and Britain, and extends memorably to Jim Nicolson, the ?father of all obit writers? who set the standard in the Philadelphia Daily News in 1982 for writing about the ordinary man. ?Nicholson plucked people out of the sea of agate type and wrote full-blown feature-style obituaries about them: a janitor, a grandma known for her love of poker, ?a world-class scammer.?? Budding obit journalists were tutored into the profession by his obit kit. Johnson?s book offers more than a tour of editors and writers. She covers the annual gathering of writers are the Sixth Great Obituary Writers? International Conference, attendance at the celebrity memorial service for Arthur Miller, and offers a grand chapter on how 9/11 created the Portrait Page.There?s her not-so-favourable opinion of tributes, a literary set piece of which she says life has been written out. There?s marvellous descriptions of the British obituary scene where in London, obits dominate in quality and quantity, generous with understatement and use of The Code (euphemisms such as ?passed on?). And lastly, an introduction to alt.obituaries, a Google group considered Grand Central where obituaries are posted and discussed. ?The good ones are as intoxicating as a lung full of snowy air.? Johnson?s focus on life touches a nerve. It?s true: ?obituaries have a pull, a natural gravity, for those of us who?ve observed that life has a way of ending.? This is a grand book that opens the door for explorations into the challenges facing the obituary industry: how to increase visibility for women and Negroes (who oddly enough, don?t seem to die very often), of a declining traditional newspaper readership, difficult economic times and modern technology that facilitates all forms of dying such as Art Buchwald?s online video.


The joys of a guilty pleasure

by mobseen on Jul 26, 2007

What a relief to find that I am not the only to turns to the obituary page before scanning the headlines. Ms. Johnson, a former obituary writer herself, sheds light on a tiny niche of human culture when she describes the attraction, the form and the curious small delights of obituaries. How do newspaper writers handle what is the last summation of a stranger's life? Ms. Johnson's book illustrates the stick in the ribs style of many English papers as opposed to American newspapers. She profiles obit editors and writers who describe the ins and outs of transforming a dead notice into an accepted form. And of course, there are lots of great obituaries that a habitee of the obit page will recognize (or at least I did.) And how, in an industry where getting a byline is a goal unto itself, obituary writers have become rock starts. There is even an Obituary Writer's convention. So come out, come out, wherever you are. You, who have endured the odd looks and baffled faces from family and friends over the years. We're not macabre, we are the authorities on a specific type of writing. Hey, tell everyone it's as important as the short story, maybe more :)

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