The Dead Beat: When obits make the news

March 21st, 2006 by Meg

My mom always makes fun of dad because he loves to read the obituaries. Or maybe love isn’t actually what he does to them, but he certainly can’t help himself from reading them, every day, like some people read their horoscopes. I don’t think his is a singular phenomenon–in fact, one of my aunts does this, too. My mom thinks it’s morbid, but Dad isn’t a creepy guy. He’s just always wanted to know what’s going on in various communities. But is there more to it than that? Well, it turns out there must be, because Marilyn Johnson, who’s written a few obits herself, but mostly is addicted to reading them, has now written a book about it. This I learned this morning, while nearly hitting snooze for the seventh time, until NPR’s interview with the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries instantly held my attention. Marilyn’s book celebrates not only several of her favorite obit writers, but also the art and culture of the obit itself. She notes that whether it’s for a celebrity, or an “Ordinary Joe” (also the title of one chapter), obits–whether or not they speak ill of the dead, which they sometimes hilariously do–are ultimately a symbol of reverence, the “written equivalent of a wake.” Marilyn is alternately funny, thoughtful, and weird, which I like. She describes her ritual of sitting down with the morning paper to read the obituaries a act of honor–paying homage to the lives of the dearly (and sometimes not so dearly) departed. So is to write a whole, 244-page book about them mordid and creepy? Just strange? Logwinded perhaps? Or reverent indeed?