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The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

3.38 of 5 stars 3.38  ·  rating details  ·  913 ratings  ·  201 reviews
The New York Times comes each morning and never fails to deliver news of the important dead. Every day is new; every day is fraught with significance. I arrange my cup of tea, prop up my slippers. Obituaries are history as it is happening. Whose time am I living in? Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed, older than I am or younger? Did she know how to live? I shak ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published February 28th 2006 by Harper (first published 2006)
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This book came to me by way of providence. I decided one day that I would like to read a book about obituaries. Shortly after, (voila) I came upon this book at the Boston Fine Arts Museum bookstore.

More specifically, Johnson writes about the blossoming cult following obituaries have been attracting for some time now. She gives an overview of the favored obituary writers, the best websites to find international favorite obituaries, the life of an obituary writer and the changing styles and fashi
I LOVED this book. Since I am an OLD FASHIONED newspaper reader and a dedicated obituary aficiando from way back, this book gave me ample permission to really relish the art of the obituary. The cover of the book, incorporating the title is: "This PUBLICATION, proudly sent forth under the title of THE DEAD BEAT will gratify THE READER with a survey both humorous and poignant of the wonders enfolded in the pages of an ordinary newspaper, and including many marvelous tales relating to LOST SOULS, ...more
Apr 27, 2008 Jeff rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who have time or blood on their hands.
I picked this book up because I liked the cover. Look at it. It’s so catchy, it almost looks like a McSweeny’s book. But it’s not. It’s almost that clever- but not quite. I wasn’t quite sure how Marilyn Johnson was going to sustain a book about obituaries for 223 pages, and the answer is she doesn’t- not really.

Johnson tries her hardest to show how great obits are- she speaks incessantly to how they bring people closure, or together, or whatever. It was when she was in the middle of these diatr
Alyce Wilson
As someone who enjoys meandering through old cemeteries, gazing at tombstones and wondering about the people who lie below, I was excited at the prospect of an entire book about obituaries. Author Marilyn Johnson focuses not so much on interesting obituaries themselves but on the craft of the creative obituary writer. A self-proclaimed obituary fan, Johnson shares fascinating insights into the writing process: from research to publication.

When I worked for a local newspaper, about a decade ago,
The world of obituary writing is slightly larger than I suppose I would have imagined it, had I imagined it at all. Johnson brings to light the differences in newspapers, the styles of various writers (and their conferences!), and even talks about some of the obituary "fans." I thought the sections on writers writing obituaries for ordinary people - finding their stories through talking with family and friends - quite interesting, and wished that happened more in my hometown. (Most of our obitua ...more
I'll start with my biases. I'm a longtime, now former, journalist who's written several "everywoman/everyman" obituaries for family and friends. I call obit writers friends. (I know some funeral directors, too.) I started a choir at my church to sing at funerals because the music suffered at times and upset grieving families further. (Good music can comfort.) It's neither ghoulish nor cultish to appreciate a fine last word, and that's what Marilyn Johnson's book is about. Yes, some folks take th ...more
Very nice overview of obituaries, obituary construction, development of obituaries in major news sources, and obituarists we've known and loved. Ties right into my job...
p.222: "I still think that the point of the obituary and the beauty of it, aside from its elegant structure and the wonderful writing it can inspire, lies in that heroic act. There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA. ... The better the obit, the closer it approaches re-creation. I
I am obituary junkie, at least I was until I started getting the NY Times which spends more time on engagements in Sunday Styles than it does the obits of ordinary people. And that's where I split from the author of this book - she prefers the obits of the famous and noted that the English papers and the NY Times run, whereas I like the more sentimental everyday obits often written by family members. The Vancouver Sun and The Oregonian had excellent versions of these and I used to save my favour ...more
Jan Takehara
You will note that this book is included on a goodreads list titled "You Read About What?" If that is your response to the title of this book, do not read it under any circumstances. If, however, you understand that obituaries, when done well, are not morbid because in fact they are about LIFE, by all means, grab this wonderful tome. Johnson includes great excerpts from obituaries, interviews with obituarists, adventures she had in alt.obituaries and a compelling delineation of the impact that t ...more
I enjoyed Marilyn Johnson's This Book Is Overdue so much I wanted to read her earlier works (especially since she'll be speaking at the MLA conference next spring). I've downloaded this to my laptop using Border's desktop e-reader software, and it's a very convenient way to read (and cost less than the cheapest paperback copy I could find on Amazon). I admit to reading obituaries regularly and often find them very entertaining (although I'm reading small-town papers, and suspect obits are writte ...more
Karen Germain
I found this book to be very important. After reading it, I had a greater appreciation for life. Specifically, an appreciation for the unique stories that everyone has to share and that make everyone special in their own way. I never realize that obituaries could be so interesting or even fun to read. I also didn't realize how much that they can vary depending on the writer and publication. It made me take notice of a part of the newpaper that I would normally overlook. The book also had several ...more
Light reading, went down very easily. My interest level waxed and waned as she went on too long about some writers and got a little repetitious making some points, but she has a way with a phrase, sometimes, or a detail, that left me with a good feeling about the book, overall. I'm going on to read her books about librarians and archeologists.

Notable lines:

These quotes sizzle when they hit the grill.

(a real pub called) The Slug and Lettuce

He did an impression of Charles de Gaulle, his penis play
Dana Bolink
The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson is a harmlessly entertaining book about a deceptively lively subject.

Johnson explains exactly what her promise for this book is, right there on the cover: "This publication, proudly sent forth under the title of The Dead Beat, will gratify the reader with a survey both humorous and poignant of the wonders enfolded in the pages of an ordinary newspaper, and including many tales relating to lost sou
OH MY GOD. This is so hysterical. I particularly call the attention of my PARENTS to the following. I was just on the bus, reading Chap. 9, in which the author travels to London to interview the obituarist Andrew McKie, who writes for the Daily Telegraph and is apparently particularly well-known in the obituary-writing world. And in the midst of her description of the interview, I was flabbergasted and delighted to come across this:

"The way to do someone ludicrous [i.e., write the obituary of s

Not exactly what I was expecting but still highly entertaining. Johnson mostly concerns herself with the rise of the "ordinary Joe" obituary as a regular feature in newspapers. The characters (both writers and the deceased) she covers are interesting, but I was hoping she'd be more reflective about why we read strangers' obituaries and how obits are connected to other ways we commemorate our dead.
Oliver Danni
This was a fascinating book on a subject I know virtually nothing about. I don't think I've ever even read an obituary that wasn't about someone I personally knew. The author's passion for this subject matter really shows, breathing life* into a highly unusual topic.

(*Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
An interesting journey into the world of obsession with obituaries. For the most part well written and interesting, it basically strings together essays from her research into her own obsession. I like obits, though not to this level. I loved the black humor, especially among the on-line group.
Margie Haack
I didn't know much about writing obits. Or reading them, but I have friends who read them every day. Author is a bit obsessed. Which is okay. I just didn't enjoy as much as I'd hoped.
Craig Pittman
This is not a long book, nor a complex one, but I took my time with its 223 pages. I wanted to relish the delicious turns of phrase, cogitate on the odd little details that cropped up, wallow in the magnificence of the topic. It was worth it.

Marilyn Johnson, who has written scads of celebrity obits herself, describes obituaries as "tight little coil of biography" that "reminds us of a poem" and "contains the most creative writing in journalism." She's right on all counts, and in this delightful
I haven't picked up the habit, but I certainly understand the appeal of reading obituaries now.
Today's post is on The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson. It is 244 pages long including notes and it published by HarperCollins. The cover is tan with a raven in the center and the title from top to bottom. The intended reader is someone who is interested in history, different lifestyles, and good writing. The story is told from the first person of the author as she explores this world. There is no sex, no violence, and some mild la ...more
This book sounded interesting, but wasn't as much as it should have been.

It's about obituaries of all sorts, so the topic had possibilities. Sometimes obits are poignant, or shocking, or snippy, or sentimental... they can be a lot of interesting things.

The ones that were sprinkled throughout the text made for sporatic interesting reading.

Unfortunately, the book also spent a lot of time covering brief bios of obit writers- who are more of a specialized taste, I'd say.

Additionally there were bri
I bought The Dead Beat primarily because it was recommended to me when I asked for books of or relating to death. I'm not exactly a "regular" reader of obituaries, at least in the way people who attend the Great Obituary Writers' International Conference seem to be; however, when I do pick up a newspaper, the only thing I'll really take notice of is the obits.

Marilyn Johnson has crafted a relatively enjoyable book about obituaries, the people who write them, and guffaw! the people who live for t
Maureen E
Opening: "People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years. Four journalists passed their deadline one day, and their obits filled a whole corner of the paper."

So, I actually read--shock! amazement!--a non-fiction book. It had been languishing on my TBR list for ages, when a friend of mine who read it kept talking about how much she enjoyed it. I put a hold on it and today it arrived.

Johnson is one of the people who, when reading a newspaper, turns f
I couldn't wait for this book to be done.
There's definitely something to the effect one's life and circumstances can have when reading a book, but a really good book or at least one that might not be stellar but grabs the attention and keeps it (I'm looking at you Twilight) can be an escape from the everyday. I'm not sure if my attention has been so absorbed in the rest of my life, but I question whether I'd like this book even if I wasn't wrapped up in other things.
There are highlights: it star
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 and, 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
This was an interesting book - I was thinking it would be a collection of interesting obits, and indeed there were quite a few of those too. However, it was mostly an exposition on the art of obituary writing, and the a glance at the kind of people who "collect" obituaries just for the pleasure of reading them, and the kind of people who write them.
It compares quite a few famous names in obit writing, and sources of good obits, especially online these days. It lead me to spend a bit of time comp
Not terrifically well-organized or well-written, but the author comes across as an agreeable, friendly person who's even more preoccupied with obituaries than I am, and I've read them every day for a long time. She searches for them on the web, participates on message boards about them, and goes to an annual conference of obit writers/fans.

Some interesting material on trends in the genre, e.g., increasing prominence of extended takes on ordinary, non-celebrity deaths ("A local life" in the Wx Po
Cynthia McCloud
Only a geek would read this -- or maybe a journalism student as assigned reading for a class. However, this isn't the only (and I hope not the definitive) book on obit writing so surely instructors would choose a better text.

There are some gems and you really have to stick with the book to find them. Then, like their subjects, they are too soon passed. The snippets of real obits are interesting for their style of writing or for the historical info you learn. But my favorite part, because I'm a j
I never realized what intense writing went into the ordinary and the extraordinary obituary. This book takes you deep inside the business of the dead beat. It covered the whole gamut from Ordinary Joe to the Egalitarians and ultimately to the Obituarist's Obituary!

The chapter on September 11th, was fascinating. The NY Times had quite a dilemma. What do you do when you need to write up 3,000 obits? Well, it was quite remarkable. They snagged 120 journalists, from all parts of the paper and had t
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