Book Review: ‘The Dead Beat’ Offers Rare Glimpse Into World of Obituaries

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By: Nekoro Gomes

What is it about the obituary that makes for such fascinating reading? Does it come from the need to read about a life lived in full or does the obit satisfy the sick sense of schadenfreude in all of us?

Author Marilyn Johnson addresses these questions and more in “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, And the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,? to be published by HarperCollins in March.

“The Dead Beat” makes a pretty convincing case for why you should start your day off with a good look at the dead. Johnson, a former staff writer for Life magazine, has written obituaries for such larger-than-life figures as Princess Diana, Johnny Cash, and Marlon Brando.

A seasoned veteran when it comes to the death docket, Johnson’s book offers readers a glimpse into one of the most widely read sections in daily papers: the colorful characters who make the obit pages sparkle in papers large and small; the different camps obit-writers might fall into, and even the grim reaper groupies who Johnson describes as “regular people who happen to spring to life when bad news arrives.”

“The Dead Beat” is also punctuated throughout with stranger-than-fiction type anecdotes that are conveyed by Johnson with equal parts humor (taken black, no cream or sugar) and thoughtfulness. Johnson’s depiction of the death of former President Ronald Reagan at the end of the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference is just one of the many eerie coincidences collected in “The Dead Beat.”

And the book is chock full of resources and Web sites for anyone who might fancy themselves an obit hobbyist — or anyone who notices that “life has a way of ending.”

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