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

Marilyn Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 May 2006
An eclectic and entertaining look at the state of the
obituary
in the U.S. to London, as measured by obituary writers, editors
and obsessed fans.
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 244 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; annotated edition edition (4 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060758759
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060758752
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 13.4 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,507,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marilyn Johnson has been a staff writer for 'Life' and 'Esquire'. She has written obits of Princess Diana, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Jacqueline Onassis among others.

Product Description

Review

"This is a book for everyone who knows a dead person, or is likely to
become one... a quirky tribute." -- 'The Big Issue

...a smart, tart and often hilarious tiptoe through the tombstones.
-- Parade, March 5, 2006

Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat is an engaging and playful first-person
celebration of the "Golden Age of the Obituary." -- USA Today, March 28, 2006

The brief obit samples she quotes represent some of the best reading in
this slim, elegant volume. -- The Wall St. Journal, March 30, 2006

[A] delightful quirk of a book...The Dead Beat also is a primer on good
writing. -- Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 2006

[A] delightful quirk of a book...The Dead Beat also is a primer on good
writing.
-- Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 2006

"Johnson writes with wit, compassion and enthusiasm."
-- 'Belfast Telegraph'

"There is life after death... she just loves obituaries, and
simply worships obituarists." -- 'Daily Telegraph'

"What will survive of us after death, apart from love? If we're
lucky, a good obit... A fun, easy read." -- 'The Observer'

...a smart, tart and often hilarious tiptoe through the
tombstones. -- Parade, March 5, 2006 --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

From the Author

I attended my first Great Obituary Writers' Conference in
2004, and had a marvellous time. Who knew obit writers would be such good
company? Half an hour before the end of the conference, somebody ran in
shouting that Ronald Reagan had died. There was more adrenaline coursing
through that place than you'd find in a casualty department. I spent the
next two years chasing obit writers, soaking up their energy and twisted
sense of humour, and collecting their greatest hits: professional whistler,
kitty litter inventor, confidante of the Three Stooges, "revolutionary
whore." THE DEAD BEAT is my valentine to obit writers.
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
People have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters, I've noticed, for years. Read the first page
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Concordance
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Like a lot of people who read good newspapers, I always make sure to read the obit pages, but until I read this book, I hadn't thought much about who writes them or how they go about it. I also hadn't considered the history of the modern newspaper obituary, or its connection with the foundation of the Independent newspaper in London in the 1980s.

Marilyn Johnson apparently used to write them herself and is clearly fascinated by the whole subject. Her excitement shows through on every page. Not only is the book highly informative, but it quotes some of the greatest obituaries you are ever likely to come across.

This book is witty and funny, but also quite profound about the mystery of what sums up a human life and makes it worth commemorating.

This is one of the best books I've read in ages!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The pleasures of obituaries 1 Jan 2007
Format:Hardcover
Obituary writers were once the Cinderellas of newspapers. Now we (I'm one myslef) are the stars. There has been an explosion of interest in these short biographies. The author of this book, Marilyn Johnson, used to write celebrity obits for Esquire annd other upmarket US magazines, and now she has taken a step back to look at eh process. This book is a delightful account of the highways nad byways of the deth-watch squad. I enjoyed it hugely.
It was first written for the US market, where it was a best seller. This edition has been customised for UK readers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Actually, I'd give it 4.9999 stars 8 Dec 2006
Format:Hardcover
Marilyn and I are both obituarists, and we met at an obituary writers conference in Las Vegas, New Mexico. We have similar tastes in a lot of things. She kindly gave me a copy of this book. First time round, I didn't read it very thoroughly.

Then I wrote an obituary of a yet another doctor. That's what I do. Afterwards, the deceased's son said he was relieved I hadn't done a hatchet job, as this book had led him to fear exactly that. So I read the book again. Lo! I am in it. It says I am a tough skinned Brit who, recovering from 2 types of lymphoma, get my revenge by writing medical obits. But revenge doesn't come into it; I like my doctors and owe them a lot. But I do try to be fair-minded, I do enjoy having the last word on high-profile doctors (almost all of whom have made the world a better place) and I think my oncologist can see the joke.

Well, this isn't a review of the book, but it's a good book, and you can take my word for it, and it comes with my complete recommendation. Buy it.
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Was this review helpful to you?
Format:Hardcover
Like a lot of people who read good newspapers, I always make sure to read the obit pages, but until I read this book, I hadn't thought much about who writes them or how they go about it. I also hadn't considered the history of the modern newspaper obituary, or its connection with the foundation of the Independent newspaper in London in the 1980s.

Marilyn Johnson apparently used to write them herself and is clearly fascinated by the whole subject. Her excitement shows through on every page. Not only is the book highly informative, but it quotes some of the greatest obituaries you are ever likely to come across.

This book is witty and funny, but also quite profound about the mystery of what sums up a human life and makes it worth commemorating.

This is one of the best books I've read in ages!
Comment | 
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  49 reviews
61 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The obituary as art form 4 Mar 2006
By Eileen Rieback - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This morning I read the obituaries in the newspaper. These have never been a part of my daily reading - at least not until I read Marilyn Johnson's "The Dead Beat." It's a funny and touching book that led me to discover an unsung yet immensely popular literary form to which I had never before given a second glance. This book isn't about the paid obituaries by friends and relatives of the deceased. It's about the life (and death) stories written by newspaper staff writers. They are tributes to celebrities, ordinary folks, and those who had a peripheral role in a historic or social context of their day. Besides presenting the story of a life, they are history as it is happening.

The author shares her enthusiasm for both reading and writing obituaries. She covers the history and evolution of the obituary format and content. She describes the obit fanatics who attend the Great Obituary Writers' Conference and who haunt Internet web sites, exchanging the latest gems they have unearthed from newspapers around the globe. She interviews obit writers and editors, and compares and contrasts the writing styles of various newspapers, especially between the American and British. She includes selections from obituaries that sparkle with wit and resonate with the essence of lives lost; they are poetry, folk art, gossip, and short story rolled into one.

Allow me to leave you with this example from the book, one which demonstrates that obits can be humorous: "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." If this fascinating book about an unusual subject doesn't convert you into an obituary reader, then nothing will!

Eileen Rieback
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A love letter to obituary writers 15 April 2006
By Alana Baranick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The Dead Beat" is Marilyn Johnson's love letter to those of us who make a living writing about the dead.

Although the former Life magazine writer has written obituaries for such celebrities as Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, she penned her book from the perspective of a fan of end-of-life mini-biographies and the newspaper reporters who compose them.

She examines our stories about recently deceased folks, looking for unusual facts and clever turns of phrase. She gets giddy at uncovering slices of life that are foreign to her, like the existence of polka halls of fame and the "Irish sports page" as a nickname for the obit page. She wonders what terminology to use for the various parts of an obit.

Her keen observations and wonderful way with words provide images that likely will be included in the "last writes" of some obit writers she has met. She compares Larken Bradley, "who writes kindly of old hippies" - dead hippies, of course - for the weekly Point Reyes (Calif.) Light, and Caroline Richmond, "a tough-skinned Brit" who pens "prickly obits" of physicians for the British Medical Journal. She says that Catherine Dunphy of the Toronto Star "manages to make Toronto, a city I've never seen, into a place I feel I know."

Her portrait of the retired Jim Nicholson, regarded as the father of "Average Joe" obits, alone is worth the price of the book.

"Dead Beat" is not an anthology, like many New York Times and Daily Telegraph of London obit books. Nor is it a how-to, like "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers."

It is an easy- and pleasure-to-read look at once-in-a-lifetime stories and their composers.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Witty and wonderful 23 Mar 2006
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I used to think that funeral directors must have the best conventions but after reading Marilyn Johnson's "The Dead Beat" I'll give the nod to obituary writers. This book is terrific from beginning to end and is full of humor, and, by the way, good writing.

Johnson does more than simply offer anecdotal obituaries...she comments on death and aspects relating to it. This book has a warm feel...even if her subject is one some of us tend to want to forget. To be a successful obituary writer one seems to need a knack for humor, and not "black" humor, necessarily. The author gives us her best when she does indeed share some of the contributions she has uncovered. Johnson quotes a man named Bob Schenley, who wrote an obit of a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster..."Almost everyone in Pittsburgh who loves baseball....loved Bob Prince, unless, of course, they actually knew him. He was a miserable mean-spirited drunk." My favorite, however, was this one written about Suzanne Kaaren, ninety-two, an actress who had appeared in several Three Stooges shorts. Penned by Stephen Miller, he said of Kaaren, "The Stooges seemed to value her opinion and regularly tried out new material on her." This kind of writing is dead-on funny.

The unusual narrow shape of "The Dead Beat" gives the reader the feeling of scanning a newspaper and is another welcome addition. Johnson delivers a flow which never lets down and does not disappoint. I loved "The Dead Beat" and I highly recommend it.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Morbidly Fascinating Romp That's Equal Parts Entertainment and Instruction (with a dash of creepy thrown in for good measure) 21 Jun 2006
By Bluestalking Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short stories of the dead... 19 Feb 2007
By E. Henry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Who could predict that the obituaries would become the most widely read portion of today's newspapers. Just as Mary Roach's "Stiff" explored what happens to your body after you're dead, Marilyn Johnson's "Dead Beat" opens our eyes to the written legacy that the obituarist leaves--essentially the short story of a life. There is an art to this, as revealed in some of the delightful excerpts in her book--the best obits don't just recite vital statistics, but rather spotlight the "specialness" (quirky habits, unusual talents, life-changing moments, etc) of the individual as gleaned from interviews with families and friends. I like the idea that the obit focuses the reader's attention on the life of one person, whether famous or not, and then demands an acknowledgement of the loss of that particular bundle of DNA, never to be duplicated. Full of wit and thoughtful exploration of a rarely discussed subject, this book is a real winner.
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