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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
ISBN: 9780061850363
List price: $9.99
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Almost as much fun as reading obituaries. Either you're a junkie, and you'll love this book, or you'll be left cold by it. Me, I'm an addict, and this book fed that addiction and gave me pointers on how to find still more obituaries. I didn't know there even was a newsgroup called alt.obituaries before I read this book. Fascinating glimpse into not only the way obits get written, but into the personalities influencing this wing of journalism.more
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.more
The culture of obit reader and writers comes together in Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat. It's a funny romp through the world of those whose job it is to ensure that the recently departed get a proper send-off. She gives a deserving nod to the famous and dead, but concentrates (rightfully so) on the Ordinary Joe obit. These are where the most fun can be had.more
Who knew that there's such deliciousness and an entire culture of obituary writing? I loved the author's passion for her topic and her adventure on her quest to find the best--define "best" on your own--obits written. Too bad most newspapers are still so stodgy and leave little room for creativity when they strip most obits to mere skeletons of the rich--define "rich" on your own--lives of those who have passed, leaving what was written about them matching the ultimate physical remains.more
The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson is a book about obituaries. It is not a laugh-out-loud compendium of funny, sarcastic or silly obituaries all in a catalogue form. It tells the thinking, feeling and prose (or poetry) used to make an obituary. Obituaries are recent additions to the culture, and are not even common in some cultures now. An obituary is a final printed notice of one’s death. Such a notice can be simple, just listing the notification of death, who survives and where the last services are to be. Other obituaries though, can be monuments to a person’s life. What that person did, how he did it and the contribution to society for the activities of the life lived. Certainly some obituaries can be humorous, but others can be sad, or even bring tears. A part of the book describes a slice of our society who read and revels over obituaries. Some newspapers have this sort of style, others that style. The last chapter sums up well what and obituary should be and why. For me, this book was an easy read; I finished it over two days. The chapters are well-constructed and there is a comfortable sequence to the topic. The multiple examples of “obits” were entertaining and enlightening. I introduced to a sub-set of people in our society who perceive life differently than many of the rest of us. She provides many Internet sites to find “obit.” Though I do read obituaries occasionally, I am not of the stripe that read daily and revels in the words and look to feel as an introduction has occurred just by reading this bit of a person.I will give this book 3 ½ stars.more
Fascinating intro to the fine art of writing obituaries and an uncomfortable look at some of the genre's cult-like followers.more
Somewhat entertaining look at the recent (last 20 years or so) revival of the art of writing obituaries. Ms. Johnson traces the current interest in this form and introduces us to some of the writers as well as obit enthusiasists of several varieties. Perhaps a bit cavalier but enjoyable. I certainly pay more attention now to the news-type obits I see in the several newspapers I scan every day.more
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.more
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.more
first line: "People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years."I didn't like this as much as I'd hoped, maybe because I didn't much care for the author's "voice." It's not her irreverence: I expected that, and it's a quality by which I'm generally more amused than offended. It may just be that she dwells too much on her own obituary hobby/passion, and so she herself is too "present" in the book.On the other hand, this book offers an enjoyable look at prominent obituarists' careers and contributions, as well as the evolution and various cultural approaches to obituary-writing. And the many obituary fragments are also interesting.more
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 PMmore
Marilyn Johnson’s ‘The Dead Beat’ has been an awakening for me. I had always considered myself as someone who read the newspaper from the first to last page. And yet, I have always been amused at those people who would be drawn to ‘The Irish Sports Section’. After reading this book, I realized that I had been avoiding the obituaries and denying myself ‘perverse pleasures’.Now, the author may recoil at any suggestion that she exhibits cultish behavior in her chosen craft as an obituarist. But, the passion for her profession shines through with a blend of dignity, respect and a healthy sense of humor.‘The Dead Beat’ is a remarkable tribute to her profession. I particularly enjoyed her homage to many of the pioneer obituarists of the egalitarian tributes. She has done her homework and I appreciate the history lesson. The author demonstrates a reverence for her chosen profession and genuine compassion for the deceased and those they leave behind. I value the education on obituary structures and styles and I came away thinking I had just completed a course in Obituaries 101. Above all else, ‘The Dead Beat’ was entertaining and enlightening and I have become a new fan of the obituary. I will no longer avoid this rich section of the newspaper and I may just start searching the online obituary resources as detailed in the book. The notes, references and bibliography are useful and thorough for those who want to pursue more.Note: This mini-review was printed in the literary anthology 'hoi polloi - A Literary Journal for the Rest of Us'.more
I really enjoyed this book - it was recommended by my husband. I had no idea that so many people were fans of obituaries. The book also discusses how to identify a good obituary and where to look for them, if you're interested in that sort of thing. We bought newspapers this weekend just to look at our local obituaries.more
This is quite possibly the worst book I've read in a long time, and is, in fact, virtually unreadable. There is an overall story, but the disorganized way that it's told adds nothing. I was stunned to see that the author is actually a professional writer, as my impression from reading the book was that the author was a middle aged housewife who thought "Judge Judy" was the leading edge in constitutional legal scholarship. The cover was nice, though, I'll give it that.more
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.more
As we age, some things just naturally occur: we lose a little hair, we wrinkle a little around the eyes and we begin to hold the newspaper further away, as we read the obituary page. Yes, the aging process gently leads us to the daily reading of obituaries.In our 20s and 30s, we just glance over the names of the newly departed. If we know the person, we skip to the last sentence to address the donation check or make visitation plans. In our late 30’s through early 50s, we start reading deeper into the announcement, looking to aid survivors by phone calls or food. When is it we start to focus on the age of the deceased as less a curiosity and more a barometer to our own longevity?As you read obituaries, you start to wish they conveyed more of the person’s past spirit. The articles contain the basics, yet they miss the essences that made a life essential on earth. As Marilyn Johnson says in her new book, The Dead Beat, “A little life well lived is worth talking about.”Author Johnson claims this is a good time to die. “Historians tell us we are living in the Golden Age of the Obituary.” Three of the biggest papers in America have reporters who report only on the departed—an assignment known fondly in the business as the “dead beat.”The obituary section, usually assigned to insubordinate reporters as punishment, became an opportunity to weld ink pens filled with bittersweet sentiments. Banished to the basement, reporters figured no one would be reading their work so why not jazz it up. They even took to mock announcements, giving overly flourished eulogies, punctured with an atmosphere of hush, to saintly ghost that were never born.Famous people require a reporter to research their lives and have the obituary written months in advance. These two-to-three, column-long missives called “canned obituaries” are ready when it is time for the second act.Violet-eyed, Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary has been written and rewritten as the actress struggles with continuing health issues—multiple broken backs, life threatening pneumonias, hip replacements and now congestive heart failure. One eager reporter, in the early 90s, leaked her canned obit to the presses. After reading them she said, “The best reviews I ever had.”more
I found it hard to put down this very lively look into verbal portraits of the dead. Ms. Johnson’s _The Dead Beat_ is well paced and peopled with a cast of characters more fascinating than many I have found in works of fiction. She’s convinced me that I’m missing out on some interesting reading if I don’t keep an eye on the obits pages for lovely coincidental deaths and intriguing life stories of “ordinaryâ€? people.more
Read all 19 reviews

Reviews

Almost as much fun as reading obituaries. Either you're a junkie, and you'll love this book, or you'll be left cold by it. Me, I'm an addict, and this book fed that addiction and gave me pointers on how to find still more obituaries. I didn't know there even was a newsgroup called alt.obituaries before I read this book. Fascinating glimpse into not only the way obits get written, but into the personalities influencing this wing of journalism.more
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.more
The culture of obit reader and writers comes together in Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat. It's a funny romp through the world of those whose job it is to ensure that the recently departed get a proper send-off. She gives a deserving nod to the famous and dead, but concentrates (rightfully so) on the Ordinary Joe obit. These are where the most fun can be had.more
Who knew that there's such deliciousness and an entire culture of obituary writing? I loved the author's passion for her topic and her adventure on her quest to find the best--define "best" on your own--obits written. Too bad most newspapers are still so stodgy and leave little room for creativity when they strip most obits to mere skeletons of the rich--define "rich" on your own--lives of those who have passed, leaving what was written about them matching the ultimate physical remains.more
The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson is a book about obituaries. It is not a laugh-out-loud compendium of funny, sarcastic or silly obituaries all in a catalogue form. It tells the thinking, feeling and prose (or poetry) used to make an obituary. Obituaries are recent additions to the culture, and are not even common in some cultures now. An obituary is a final printed notice of one’s death. Such a notice can be simple, just listing the notification of death, who survives and where the last services are to be. Other obituaries though, can be monuments to a person’s life. What that person did, how he did it and the contribution to society for the activities of the life lived. Certainly some obituaries can be humorous, but others can be sad, or even bring tears. A part of the book describes a slice of our society who read and revels over obituaries. Some newspapers have this sort of style, others that style. The last chapter sums up well what and obituary should be and why. For me, this book was an easy read; I finished it over two days. The chapters are well-constructed and there is a comfortable sequence to the topic. The multiple examples of “obits” were entertaining and enlightening. I introduced to a sub-set of people in our society who perceive life differently than many of the rest of us. She provides many Internet sites to find “obit.” Though I do read obituaries occasionally, I am not of the stripe that read daily and revels in the words and look to feel as an introduction has occurred just by reading this bit of a person.I will give this book 3 ½ stars.more
Fascinating intro to the fine art of writing obituaries and an uncomfortable look at some of the genre's cult-like followers.more
Somewhat entertaining look at the recent (last 20 years or so) revival of the art of writing obituaries. Ms. Johnson traces the current interest in this form and introduces us to some of the writers as well as obit enthusiasists of several varieties. Perhaps a bit cavalier but enjoyable. I certainly pay more attention now to the news-type obits I see in the several newspapers I scan every day.more
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.more
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.more
first line: "People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years."I didn't like this as much as I'd hoped, maybe because I didn't much care for the author's "voice." It's not her irreverence: I expected that, and it's a quality by which I'm generally more amused than offended. It may just be that she dwells too much on her own obituary hobby/passion, and so she herself is too "present" in the book.On the other hand, this book offers an enjoyable look at prominent obituarists' careers and contributions, as well as the evolution and various cultural approaches to obituary-writing. And the many obituary fragments are also interesting.more
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 PMmore
Marilyn Johnson’s ‘The Dead Beat’ has been an awakening for me. I had always considered myself as someone who read the newspaper from the first to last page. And yet, I have always been amused at those people who would be drawn to ‘The Irish Sports Section’. After reading this book, I realized that I had been avoiding the obituaries and denying myself ‘perverse pleasures’.Now, the author may recoil at any suggestion that she exhibits cultish behavior in her chosen craft as an obituarist. But, the passion for her profession shines through with a blend of dignity, respect and a healthy sense of humor.‘The Dead Beat’ is a remarkable tribute to her profession. I particularly enjoyed her homage to many of the pioneer obituarists of the egalitarian tributes. She has done her homework and I appreciate the history lesson. The author demonstrates a reverence for her chosen profession and genuine compassion for the deceased and those they leave behind. I value the education on obituary structures and styles and I came away thinking I had just completed a course in Obituaries 101. Above all else, ‘The Dead Beat’ was entertaining and enlightening and I have become a new fan of the obituary. I will no longer avoid this rich section of the newspaper and I may just start searching the online obituary resources as detailed in the book. The notes, references and bibliography are useful and thorough for those who want to pursue more.Note: This mini-review was printed in the literary anthology 'hoi polloi - A Literary Journal for the Rest of Us'.more
I really enjoyed this book - it was recommended by my husband. I had no idea that so many people were fans of obituaries. The book also discusses how to identify a good obituary and where to look for them, if you're interested in that sort of thing. We bought newspapers this weekend just to look at our local obituaries.more
This is quite possibly the worst book I've read in a long time, and is, in fact, virtually unreadable. There is an overall story, but the disorganized way that it's told adds nothing. I was stunned to see that the author is actually a professional writer, as my impression from reading the book was that the author was a middle aged housewife who thought "Judge Judy" was the leading edge in constitutional legal scholarship. The cover was nice, though, I'll give it that.more
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.more
As we age, some things just naturally occur: we lose a little hair, we wrinkle a little around the eyes and we begin to hold the newspaper further away, as we read the obituary page. Yes, the aging process gently leads us to the daily reading of obituaries.In our 20s and 30s, we just glance over the names of the newly departed. If we know the person, we skip to the last sentence to address the donation check or make visitation plans. In our late 30’s through early 50s, we start reading deeper into the announcement, looking to aid survivors by phone calls or food. When is it we start to focus on the age of the deceased as less a curiosity and more a barometer to our own longevity?As you read obituaries, you start to wish they conveyed more of the person’s past spirit. The articles contain the basics, yet they miss the essences that made a life essential on earth. As Marilyn Johnson says in her new book, The Dead Beat, “A little life well lived is worth talking about.”Author Johnson claims this is a good time to die. “Historians tell us we are living in the Golden Age of the Obituary.” Three of the biggest papers in America have reporters who report only on the departed—an assignment known fondly in the business as the “dead beat.”The obituary section, usually assigned to insubordinate reporters as punishment, became an opportunity to weld ink pens filled with bittersweet sentiments. Banished to the basement, reporters figured no one would be reading their work so why not jazz it up. They even took to mock announcements, giving overly flourished eulogies, punctured with an atmosphere of hush, to saintly ghost that were never born.Famous people require a reporter to research their lives and have the obituary written months in advance. These two-to-three, column-long missives called “canned obituaries” are ready when it is time for the second act.Violet-eyed, Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary has been written and rewritten as the actress struggles with continuing health issues—multiple broken backs, life threatening pneumonias, hip replacements and now congestive heart failure. One eager reporter, in the early 90s, leaked her canned obit to the presses. After reading them she said, “The best reviews I ever had.”more
I found it hard to put down this very lively look into verbal portraits of the dead. Ms. Johnson’s _The Dead Beat_ is well paced and peopled with a cast of characters more fascinating than many I have found in works of fiction. She’s convinced me that I’m missing out on some interesting reading if I don’t keep an eye on the obits pages for lovely coincidental deaths and intriguing life stories of “ordinaryâ€? people.more
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