Bookmarks Issue: 

Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

A-TheDeadBeatSome time ago, in the Reagan era, obituaries were reinvigorated. Though celebrated lives had long been treated to rich prose codas, writers in Britain and the United States began lavishing the same care and attention on the common man. These chronicles of "the extraordinary ordinary people," packed with details both pithy and quirky, fostered an audience that combed Internet newsgroups and the dark corners of newspapers to read about the King of Kitty Litter and the Rothschild heiress with a penchant for fleas. In The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson celebrates the dead alongside those accomplished writers that strive to chronicle their inimitable lives.
HarperCollins. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0060758759

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Her ability to bask in the small joys of life—hers and those of fellow scribes of death, as well as the lives of the no longer living—is inspiring and never maudlin." Mary Roach

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"She shares her experience at a mass gathering of obituary writers as they gleefully discuss the nuances of their craft. She dips into Internet chat rooms where obituary-obsessed people across the globe post their favorite obits and discuss the newly dead. And she does it all with just the right combination of knowledge, wit and wisdom." Verna Noel Jones

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The author makes the distinction between the paid notices written by family and those penned by skilled obit writers. The latter comprise some of the best writers at newspapers and they are now receiving their due." Tom Dodge

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Johnson writes about obituaries with the zeal—and insight—of an avid obit fan, someone who looks at half a dozen newspapers a day and spends hours online, Googling death: reading posts on the alt.obituaries newsgroup and posting favorite obits of her own. … Her book doesn’t exactly break new ground—a 2002 New Yorker piece by Mark Singer covered a lot of the same territory—but it makes for lively reading, nonetheless." Michiko Kakutani

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Only ingrates will complain long. Open this enormously entertaining book and your life will contain three certainties: death, taxes and an overwhelming desire to turn the pages." Peter Rowe

Critical Summary

Johnson, a writer and editor for Life, Esquire, and Outside, knows whereof she speaks; she has written obituaries for such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlon Brando. Though critics hint at the gloomy nature of her subject, they are won over by her humorous, "uplifting, joyous, life-affirming read for people who ordinarily steer clear of uplifting, joyous, life-affirming reads" (Los Angeles Times). Though spotty in places, Dead Beat never fails to entertain. Shunning the anthological approach, Johnson ties the book together with tales of the many writers responsible for the current vogue of obituaries and, of course, those lucky enough to be eulogized by them.