'The Dead Beat' Highlights the Joy of Obituary Writing

A new book celebrates the appeal of the newspaper's obituary page. Renee Montagne talks to Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

People exiting the world is the subject of our next conversation, and the new book, "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries." Author Marilyn Johnson has written a few herself, but she's mostly obsessed with reading them. Her piles of obit clippings include odd coincidences that pop up as people go.

History's most famous example may be John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They both died on the fourth of July, exactly 50 years after both signed the Declaration of Independence. Others...

Ms. MARILYN JOHNSON (Author): The man who was the voice of Tiger in Pooh, and the man who was the voice of Piglet in Pooh died within a day of each other. The man who isolated Vitamin C and the man who isolated Vitamin K, within a day of each other, they died. You can't say enough times that is an incredible thing.

MONTAGNE: Not long ago, obituary writers never spoke ill of the dead. Marilyn Johnson says the new generation might, if it's more interesting.

Ms. JOHNSON: This was from an obituary tribute in the New York Times Magazine of Walter Forsheimer(ph). His father and uncles made fortunes in standard oil stock, and he was one of the men who started the CIA. It's said he had a private income, never married, and was often described as crusty, outspoken, and a curmudgeon. Euphemisms for his conservative politics, social views that included a crude prejudice against Jews and blacks, and a manner that could view from fawning on the great, to public abuse of menials.

MONTAGNE: That borders on the vicious, actually, and he very well may have deserved it. I guess you kind of figure he did, when you read it. Is there one that's more sweetly honest?

Ms. JOHNSON: I think the master of that was Jim Nicholson, who wrote obits for years for the Philadelphia Daily News. He could really capture somebody. And he wrote a famous obituary of a drifter, whose name was Thomas Robinson, but who was known to everyone as Mooseneck. His brother was quoted as saying, "He was interested in going around asking people, 'Have you got a dollar?' I'm not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He'd go around and ask people for money, and they'd give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him." You find out, you know, I mean, you find out something about him that's probably, you know, not really all that worth bragging about, but its...its phrased in a way that's clear that its coming from an affectionate place.

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, the obituary writers say there is a period after the death when people are very forthcoming, and they love talking about the person who left. It's the equivalent of a wake. They want those stories to stay alive.

And for obit writers whose job is to conjure up the person who has just left the building forever, it's a collusion, you know? They're collaborating in remembering this person.

MONTAGNE: Now, you were able to go into the New York Times' room...

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...where they keep a file of, what, about 1,200...

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...obituaries for people who are not yet dead.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Which, it may surprise people to learn that so many obituaries are written ahead of time. When you were given access to these obituaries at the New York Times, you had to take notes, whatever notes you took, strictly off the record.

Ms. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm. I'll read this paragraph. I was interviewing and spending part of the day with Chuck Strum, who was the editor of the obituaries at that point.

The notes from my sessions with Chuck Strum are pockmarked with "OTR", off the record, every time he invokes a person who is not yet dead, in spite of the fact that some of these people have been interviewed for their obits. There is a sense of the sacred. These files are the vessels of the worlds' fragile but still living history. Most of those 1,200 or so names in there are of marked men and women, consigned to this list by age or disease or high-risk occupations--like the Presidency of the United States. But it touches me to see the guarded so carefully, as if the obits were hearts that Strum will transplant to the obits page after their hosts are declared dead.

MONTAGNE: Huh.

Ms. JOHNSON: I got a wonderful sense of reverence from him. And I get that feeling when I sit down in the morning over the obituaries. I'm paying honor, I'm honoring somehow, these people who have just left. They have made something of their lives, and we have judged it worth sharing.

MONTAGNE: Marilyn Johnson is author of "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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