Every day, Stephen Miller rises to greet the dead. He skips a morning cup of coffee and goes instead to the obituary pages for his fix.
Browsing newspaper Web sites around the world, Miller plucks a hodgepodge of deceased--from candymakers to meteorologists to the oldest bird at the London Zoo--for an unusual rewrite of their obituaries.
By day a computer consultant at a Wall Street bank, Miller morphs at night into an offbeat writer who adds zip to what he considers the staid form of obituary writing--more about resumes than people.
Of Baltimore butcher-turned-businessman Nathan Mash, who died in March 1998, Miller declared: "It took a Jew to make reduced-salt ham a reality." Minneapolis-born stripper Lili St. Cyr, who died early this year, was "one of the finest ecdysiasts ever," he raved, then recounted her famed bathtub routine. When La-Z-Boy founder Edwin Shoemaker died last year, Miller provided this poignant detail: "On the day he died, Shoemaker came home from dinner and fell asleep in his recliner. He did not arise."
For four years, the 37-year-old Miller has published a bimonthly Web zine cheerily titled GoodBye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries. He has produced two dozen issues, each brimming not so much with death as with life.
To some Goodbye! is morbid fare--only about 200 people subscribe to the $15-a-year publication, and its Web site gets just 125 hits a day. Printed in black and white in 10 or 12 newsletter-size pages, it is a low-budget affair. Miller breaks even on printing expenses, but the cost of research--purchasing books, subscribing to magazines--adds up. It is a personal, not profitable, mission.
"Death is fascinating and terrifying, and I like to play with that," Miller said. "But I almost never include the cause of death in my obits. That's not so interesting to me. I don't want to sound sanctimonious, but the focus is on life."
He searches for details readers can connect with. Alongside Jack Lord's obit is a sidebar with the "Hawaii Five-O" star's favorite cheesecake recipe. Readers hear that boxer Archie Moore not only knocked out 141 opponents but that he owned a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove and wore snazzy gold caps on his teeth.
Miller is not alone in his interest in noting more than just the dead's employment history in obituaries.
Historian Janice Hume read more than 8,000 obituaries for her forthcoming book "Obituaries in American Culture," and was struck by how obituary writing has changed with time. In the 19th century, she said, people were remembered for being "honest or courageous or pious." It was with the Industrial Revolution that the focus shifted to a person's work life.
Many of today's obituaries are written from forms filled out by families at the funeral home, said Hume, an assistant professor of journalism at Kansas State University.
"Newsrooms are strapped for space and staff, and the obit page gets the short shrift," she said.
Miller discovered obituary writing when he went to work at a small New Jersey paper after graduating from Oberlin College. Among his duties, he fielded calls from funeral home directors and quickly learned--and despised--the obituary formula.
"Here's what you need to know about the deceased: How many kids did he have, what was his job, what clubs was he in," Miller said, droning for effect. "It's a list. It flattens a person's life."
He became so bored he committed the cardinal sin of reporting: He wrote fake obits, with unsuspecting friends filling in for the dead.
"The first one I did for a friend who was really depressed and I wanted to do something to give him a laugh," Miller said. "I made him a scoutmaster."
Miller was never caught and left the paper unscathed. He insists the reporting in GoodBye! is serious. He says he spends dozen of hours researching his dead each week, anything from reading biographies and fanzines to studying old films like "Samson and Delilah" for Victor Mature and "Patton" for George C. Scott.
Miller's own tastes emerge in each obit. Often, his spin stings.
"Archie is one of the most loathsome and sappy comics of all time. The man responsible for it has disappeared from this mortal strip forever. Golly," reads the obit about Archie creator John Goldwater, after his death in February 1999.
This caustic tone repels some readers. One woman liked GoodBye! enough to give subscriptions as holiday presents. But her sister swore off after reading the obituary for John Denver, which parodied his song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." The singer died when his plane crashed into Monterey Bay on Oct. 12, 1997.
Miller doesn't apologize. "People enjoy reading things that have a point of view," he said. "It's responsibly done."
Indiana University literature professor Mikita Brottman discovered the zine on the Web (www.goodbyemag.com) about a year ago and liked it so much that she added a link from her own site.
"What appeals to me is that he seems to have a kind of respect for death and a fascination of it," said Brottman.
A book editor contacted Miller recently about GoodBye!, intrigued by its originality, but the two couldn't think of a good (and marketable) way to anthologize the obits. For now the zine will remain as is--though Miller wonders why he's lucky enough to still have a lock on the market.
"At first I was worried somebody would steal the idea," he said. "Now I wonder why nobody has bothered to."
CAPTION: Stephen Miller, inspired by his dislike for formula obituaries, created his own zine detailing the lives of the departed.