Sunday, February 21, 2010


It's amazing what you don't know sometimes. I remember having a lengthy conversation with an old friend about subcultures once after my dad became sucked into a deer-watching subculture in our town one summer. There's a wooded part of my town that has something like 2,000 deer living in one square mile, and it's about a quarter-mile away from where I grew up. My dad would ride his bike out to *the* deer-watching spot and there would always be half a dozen people there, including one man who photographed all the fawns every year and created photo albums of them. He usually had his album with them. They came with binoculars, lawn chairs, the whole nine yards. Who knew?

Apparently, there is a similar subculture of obituary fans. There's a Usenet group. There are conventions. There are obituary writers that they venerate, and would be as excited to meet in person as they would to meet any celebrity. And as of several years ago, there's a book.

I picked up The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson mainly because when I started my new job, I sat next to the woman who does the obits for all of our newspapers until my permanent desk opened up. We used to talk about them if she got an interesting one or a weird one. I specifically remember a lengthy conversation about whether or not to include that a man was survived by his great-niece. Normally the policy is to just list immediate family, but this was all the man had left.

The book is decent, but it's also hard to say much about. Johnson begins by introducing her own fascination with obituaries. She goes on to talk about obit conventions, and to profile several obituary writers who are giants in their fields. The man who works for a London paper that was responsible for introducing a little humor into obits. A woman in Oregon who does "life profiles" of ordinary, interesting people who have recently passed. The genesis of the concept of signed obituaries of well-known people by their friends.

She also dives a little into why they interest people. My favorite example related to the obits of Rosemary Clooney and of a well-known Hollywood producer (I believe, and can't go check because I have a cat on my lap). Both were present when Robery Kennedy was assassinated. The producer had driven him to the hotel. Clooney was standing near him. Both had spent much of the rest of their lives getting over it, and neither had fully succeeded at that. It's the sort of detail that can't really come out until the story of someone's life is finished.

The book is basically a tour of the obits subculture. Who likes them, why they like them, the people that create them. It's the sort of thing, frankly, that either interests you or it doesn't. If a book on this topic sounds fascinating to you, you will probably enjoy reading this one. If the topic sounds duller than watching paint dry, you won't like the book at all.