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Marilyn Johnson was enthralled by the remarkable lives that were marching out of this world—so she sought out the best obits in the English language and the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. She surveyed the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, and made a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all. Now she leads us on a compelling journey into the cult and culture behind the obituary page and the unusual lives we don't quite appreciate until they're gone.

Published: HarperCollins on Oct 13, 2009
ISBN: 9780061850363
List price: $7.99
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Fascinating intro to the fine art of writing obituaries and an uncomfortable look at some of the genre's cult-like followers.read more
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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 PMread more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.read more
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Fascinating intro to the fine art of writing obituaries and an uncomfortable look at some of the genre's cult-like followers.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
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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.
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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.
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