Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: "The Dead Beat"

I was unsurprised to see that my copy of Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries included a cover blurb by Mary Roach, since both of those writers have played a major role in the propagation and promotion of books which treat various bizarre or macabre aspects of everyday life. Johnson's volume takes on the humble obituary, and like Roach she's able to bring a dry wit, a good sense of satire, and a firm grounding in personal experience to her topic which makes the book come to life in a way that a scholarly treatise on the same subject might fail to do.

Johnson covers many aspects of obituaries, from the structure and language generally used (a section on the euphemisms for death was one of the funniest segments of the book) to the practice of pre-writing obituaries for famous people. She interviewed obit writers from several major US and British papers and includes short profiles of each along with their takes on the practice of obit-writing. She attended conferences of obituary enthusiasts, and analyzes the online community of obituary fans. There's quite a bit of "shop talk" here which got old to me and probably would to anyone not already immersed in the obit world - some more of the many interesting examples of the wide range of styles would have been welcome.

Strangely enough, Johnson doesn't cover much at all about the history of obituaries, except for a short discussion of changes to the form in recent years as the practice of writing "egalitarian obituaries" (that is, long, discursive treatments of 'ordinary people') has come into vogue. Nor does she focus much on obituaries across cultures, except for pointing out the differences between American and British practices and a too-brief overview of how obituaries are viewed in other parts of the world. But for its deficiencies, this was a fun short read, and I guarantee that you'll never read an obituary the same way again.