Last Hurrahs

By Matt Schudel,
who is an obituary writer for The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

By Marilyn Johnson

HarperCollins. 244 pp. $24.95

Every so often, when I'm taking information for an obituary, a caller will try to cheer me up: If I work hard, it will only be a matter of time before I can escape the, ahem, dead end of the obit desk. A common perception with the public, and occasionally in newsrooms, is that writing obituaries is some sort of macabre punishment.

Obituaries may once have been consigned to young reporters learning their jobs or old hacks being shown the door, but Marilyn Johnson is here to say that there's, well, life in this oft-overlooked craft after all. In her archly titled "The Dead Beat," she takes a sprightly journey around the lively world of obituary writing, which in her view has never been more vivid or interesting than it is today.

Beginning with what Johnson calls the British "Obituary Revolution" of the late 1980s, English and American newspapers have put new emphasis on compelling stories about the newly dead and created a "Golden Age of the Obituary." Once faceless and formulaic, the humble obituary has metaphorically transformed itself from Rodney Dangerfield to Jude Law, who played an obit writer in the film "Closer." Fans debate obituaries on Web sites, maintain death watches for the aged and infirm and attend conventions for practitioners and admirers. The well-wrought obit is, in Johnson's words, a "tight little coil of biography" that "contains the most creative writing in journalism" -- a boast not even I would make.

Obituaries, of course, have been with us as long as death itself. Johnson, whose interests lie with recent developments, skips the long history of poetic elegies and prose classics such as John Aubrey's 17th-century "Brief Lives." She dispatches Alden Whitman, considered the father of the modern American obituary, with a single paragraph. She has little more to say about one of his successors at the New York Times, the incomparable Robert McG. Thomas Jr., who turned out hundreds of deadline gems.

Her real heroes are the editors and writers who compose the cheeky, gossipy obits that are the hallmark of the British style. The trend started in 1986 when, almost in concert, the London Times, the Telegraph and the newly formed Independent began to publish quirky, irreverent send-offs that reveled in a subject's eccentricities and spectacular moral failings. A ballet dancer was a "homosexual of the proselytizing kind"; a barfly "rejoiced in daring attractive young women to strip naked . . . in return for limitless champagne." A well-born woman, known for her frequent affairs, eventually found "the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue."

"Do they make people like this in the United States?" Johnson wonders. "If so . . . we don't read about them in the obituaries." More than anything, that's the result of the divergent journalistic practices of the two countries. American editors tend to prefer straightforward, scrupulously factual accounts or the increasingly common "everyman" obituaries that delve into the lives of people who never made the headlines.

Johnson says that the everyman obit is "a narrative driven primarily by sentiment" and quotes a British writer's putdown of stories about "the foibles of nonentities." But you can apply the same complaint to the endless stream of British obituaries about minor nobles and Royal Air Force veterans. Moreover, many rollicking English obits seem to be longer on ridicule than on human sympathy.

Still, there's a lot of room on the obit page, and Johnson devotes a couple of chapters to Jim Nicholson, who perfected the Ordinary Joe obituary at the Philadelphia Daily News in the 1980s, and to his descendants around the country. "Who would you miss," Nicholson would ask, "the secretary of state or your garbage man?"

Johnson, who is a magazine writer and editor, understands the craft of obituaries and delights in the tantalizing fragments of history that they reveal. But sometimes, as when she devises silly names for an obituary's various elements, she's too clever by half. (Nevertheless, I do like her term "tombstone" for the clause in the first sentence that describes what a person did and why it was important.) Only in her final chapter, when Johnson describes how she and other obit-obsessives post items and exchange comments on the alt.obituaries newsgroup, does her infatuation turn creepy. "We create cut-and-paste art . . . like junior Robert Rauschenbergs or Picasso manques," she writes in a paroxysm of grandiose self-delusion. In her more sober moments, Johnson brings a fresh sense of appreciation to the modest but exacting stories that many readers treasure above all others.

No one grasped the importance of the job more than J.Y. Smith, the first obituary editor of The Washington Post. He had been a foreign correspondent, a roving reporter and an editor on the editorial page, but he found obituaries "far and away the most interesting and difficult work I have ever done."

I learned that from his obituary.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company