"Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."
It may take especially thick skin to find a book on the subject of obituaries anything but depressing and morbid, but for those like me who are pre-disposed to finding such things more entertaining and fascinating than frightening this is an appealing topic. Then again, I'm native to the Deep South, where people go on death watch the minute you pick up the phone to make an appointment for a medical check up. In a culture that lives to bake casseroles in anticipation of disaster, any southern cook worth her salt will have water on to boil the instant Uncle Leroy feels the first chest pain, and by the time he hits the floor will have the casserole sitting on his doorstep.
Marilyn Johnson is a woman obsessed by obituaries, and in The Dead Beat she writes about the good, the bad and the ugly of the genre. What makes a good obituary, what makes a bad one, and how can we tell the difference? Burning questions, all of them, and every one is answered in this book, complete with numerous examples of all sorts of tributes. Some are weepy, some are wonderfully catty and some are just plain pathetic, but what they tell us is the subject of death is morbidly fascinating to us all.
Obituaries can also apparently be informative:
"How about Harold von Braunhut, the genius behind sea monkeys? Sea Monkeys, mail-order packets of brine shrimp, shrimp that could be shipped and shelved in dried form, sprang to life when dropped in water; 400 million of them once shot into space with an astronaut. I learned this on the obits page. War, pestilence, bad investment news, and political rants in sections A through D, but there, on the page marked Obituaries - sea monkeys!"
In the midst of all her rapture on the subject of obituaries, Johnson also realizes there's something somewhat off-kilter about her enthusiasm. It may be encouraging to know she does recognize and address this in the course of the book, "How do I say this? I scare nurses. My children are used to it, but fewer of their friends drop by, I've noticed."
The Dead Beat is, strange as it sounds, a great read for those interested in the off-beat, quirky journalism behind obituaries. As reviewer Lisa Grunwald puts it, "Vital reading for anyone who knows a dead person or is likely to become one."
If this doesn't give you a taste for tuna casserole I frankly don't know what will.