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

3.40  ·  Rating details ·  1,305 ratings  ·  260 reviews
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 c ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published January 30th 2007 by Harper Perennial (first published 2006)
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Montzalee Wittmann
Dec 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by by Marilyn Johnson is a book I picked up from the library by chance. I am a nurse and one of the odd habit nurses have is looking at obituaries, weird, I know. We check to see if we know anyone we helped, especially if working in a nursing home recently or part time. Odd habit but apparently others have it too. Well this book shows the strange obits out there, the different styles of writing obits from different ...more
Jul 08, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: subcultures
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
Mar 26, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 11, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jun 16, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
The front cover says
This book...will gratify the reader..." Well, no, it doesn't. What I thought would be actual obituaries is instead a book filled with comments about obituaries, and the people who write them. One of the chapters even dissects the obituary and gives names to each of the phrases that are, or maybe should be, used in an obituary.
There are other books of obituaries, and I've read a couple. They are interesting, the actual obituary of famous, notorious, and almost-famous people;
This was Johnson’s first book, but I read it after her other two other deep-dive investigative career-day romps, one on librarians and one on archaeologists (Lives in Ruins). This is about obituarists, and the particular skills it takes to distill an entire life down to its main events and themes – all delivered, preferably, in sparkly and unexpected prose that doesn’t devolve into clichés. It’s a “fusion of the literary arts, black humor, and pathos.” They also, generally, have to work quite qu ...more
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: journalism, death
I picked up this book because the blurb on the cover said "An uplifting, joyous, life-affirming read for people who ordinarily steer clear of uplifting, joyous, life-affirming reads." My conclusion upon finishing is that I didn't need to read a whole book about the world of obituaries and the people who love them. Marilyn Johnson writes about the structure of obituaries, the various styles of obits and the papers that run them. She introduces us to the obituary writers she admires and the people ...more
Alyce Wilson
Feb 22, 2012 rated it liked it
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,
Apr 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jerry Jares
Jan 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those hip, offbeat books that is such a joy to read.  In case you didn't know, we are in the midst of the 'golden age of obits.'  I happen to be listening to the author read her own work and it is a trip.  It is droll entertainment at its best.  I cannot recommend it more highly.  It has been so much fun that I turned it back and listened a second time.

Johnson isn't really talking about the obits that family members or funeral homes write for the local paper.  She is telling us th
Thomas M.
Jun 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction

"The best, I find, are made out of humble and unlikely material like the obit of Suzanne Kaaren, ninety-two, an actress who had appeared in several Three Stooges shorts. In her obit for the NY Sun, Stephen Miller had crammed her identification with the fascinating particulars of her life: 'an original Rockette, a champion high-jumper, a patent holder for a pop-top can, and in the 1990s she waged a successful legal battle against Donald Trump when the developer tired to evict her from her sprawli
This was interesting, and I loved the profiles of the obit writers that Johnson has constructed. It is, admittedly, a little out of date (I'm not sure who's using a google group right now as opposed to, say, a subreddit), but it's easy to follow and endlessly entertaining. A quick read that kept me going while I moved house. ...more
Tamara Suttle
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved this little book!

It was such a lark to read!

If you are a fan of obituaries, genealogy, elevating / appreciating "the little guy," and / or interested in the art of writing under the pressure of deadlines, you'll appreciate this author's passion in The Dead Beat!

The book is peppered with anecdotal excerpts of obituaries and names of well-respected obituarists.

Such a fun read!

Favorite quotes:

"How the British obits look is part of their impact, but how they read is the point. A great British
May 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
This book started off so well, but on the whole it’s more about the infrastructure of obituaries rather than obituaries themselves – the relevant newspapers, the writers, and an annual meeting of writers and readers. It was also extremely gushy, like an enthusiastic fan club letter about obituaries. The topper was the eight pages with posed and occasionally cheesy pictures of obituary writers.

I guess it’s a difficult trick to write a whole book focusing on obituaries and why they interest and m
Apr 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giggle-worthy
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
Jan 20, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan Takehara
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 01, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 17, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jan 27, 2013 rated it did not like it
Such a disappointing book. I like to read obits; the 94 year old lady, who was married for 57 years and has 5 kids, 13 grandkids and 21 great grandkids. There's just something about those! I was expecting this book to be more about obits themselves, not the mechanics and the people who write them. I truly found it boring about half-way through and had to force myself to finish it. ...more
Danni Green
Mar 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.)
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. ...more
Kaethe Douglas
I haven't picked up the habit, but I certainly understand the appeal of reading obituaries now. ...more
Apr 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book went on my "currently reading" list back in 2013. I think I started it back then (just barely!) but I recently decided it would be a good choice during this stay-at-home time to do double duty: it would both make my tower of TBRs about an inch lower to the ground, and reading the whole thing would get it off my "currently reading" list here on Goodreads. Hurray on both fronts!

Generally I think of obituaries as interesting, and I know that in the past The Oregonian's obituaries writer A
Ed Bernard
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Obituaries! The best part of the newspaper, day in and day out, in my opinion. And as made apparent by this book, I am not alone. It seems that the obits have undergone a somewhat quiet revolution recently, which gathered strength post-9/11, when the NY Times published short profiles of each victim (which are also a major part of the 9/11 museum in lower Manhattan, a must-visit). Whereas obits were once the exclusive purview of the rich and famous, now a common approach is to tell the stories of ...more
Mar 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Many, many years and two careers ago, I worked with a fellow reporter whose dream was to someday write a book detailing the last meals of death row convicts. I eventually moved jobs and lost touch with him, and never did learn whether he wrote that book. Yet I've never quite forgotton about it since it was such an out-of-the-box idea. The same perverse intrigue attracted me to "The Dead Beat", a non-fiction cultural study about obituaries, obituarists and fans of the same.

Without a doubt, The D
Dec 28, 2018 rated it liked it
I'm a long-time reader of obituaries, and have written my share of them. So I really enjoyed most of this book, although the writing isn't always my favorite (she sometimes gets a bit breezy and self-referential). The chapter on online obituaries did not seem to me to fit; while the rest of the book is about professionals and their approaches, that one is more about the kind of online impression-management and oh-so-clever dilettantishness that makes me want to have little to do with most online ...more
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Author of three non-fiction books about those who work to capture, preserve, provide access to, and excavate our cultural memories.

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