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.