Saturday, October 14, 2006

Book Review: The Dead Beat - Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson

The 1962 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia I grew up with was short and to the point about the death of Daniel Boone: “He died at the age of 86 from eating too many sweet potatoes.” That’s it -- no embellishments and no other explanations after four pages detailing Boone’s amazingly adventurous and legendary life of frontier exploits, explorations, hunting, fighting Indians and blazing trails. Facing danger at all times and at all turns during his life… only to loosen his belt a notch at the supper table and keel over before dessert.

Although it was probably more correct to say that Daniel Boone died at the age of 86 because he was 86 -- and this at a time when 86 really meant something! -- there is indeed confusion over the cause, with other biographies mentioning heart failure or “undetermined causes,” and if a few mention anything about sweet potatoes, they take pains to suggest unwise eating habits as a contributory factor.

The 1962 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia more than suggests otherwise, and while I always marveled at and was amused by the rather unprofessional mischievousness of their Boone biographer, a William O. Steele by name -- who no doubt delighted in seeing his gustative-skewed gaffe slip through the cracks while subsequent editions dropped such tome-foolery like a hot potato -- I somewhat empathize with the desire for diversion, and I have always harbored a hope that Mr. Steele was able to land on his proverbial feet after his no-doubt job termination. As for the cessation of his life, I've also harbored a hope that he hasn’t kicked the proverbial bucket from eating too much humble pie.

But I've yammered on digressively so. For having read about the marvelously macabre and enthralling life and work of obituary writers contained in The Dead Beat, I can see a true calling for Mr. Steele, a perfect bounce-back in the obituary biz, relishing the opportunity to silly-putty the prose on, for example, the obit for the founder of Matchbox cars, who “for several decades after World War II was the world’s largest automaker.” Or to wax rhapsodic about those we may lean on for support:
    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.

Death isn’t always funereal fun and games, of course, and if recent years have seen a cultish trend toward mixing some whimsy with welcome celebratory salutes to notables and Ordinary Joes alike, it hasn’t been at the expense of well-considered compassion and thoughtfulness. The Dead Beat, then, is more than a compendium of death notices designed to tickle your fancy-free sense of cheek and irreverence. Marilyn Johnson has admirably taken a systematic, cohesive, and comprehensive approach to the subject - from attending the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference that was, um, fortuitously capped off with the “harmonic aspect to its timing” of Ronald Reagan’s death (“Forgive us, but this is what we live for”), to the irreverence of internet afterlife in “Googling Death,” a “messy frontier” tantamount to Grand Central for ghouls, rumor-mongers and professional journalists.

But before we reach that online horizon, Johnson gives us a deft historical overview of obituaries as they have traditionally evolved in newpapers, noting that, like poetry, they’ve had their flowery period, a bleak epoch, and modern era -- the latter age a time that fortunately for the most part left some of the 19th-century gruesomeness behind: “Within the short period of a year she was a bride, a beloved wife and companion, a mother, a corpse!” But since then, morbid-mania has gripped the United States and the United Kingdom after a shake-up in the 1980s when “the equivalents of Elvis and the Beatles rose up" to write today's tributes. Due to this time of dynamic expansion, innovation, and yes, entertainment, “a boring, moldy form has sprung to life.”

In addition to and in the course of chronicling the form the obituary has taken in such American newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post and in the UK’s essential “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" -- The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent -- Johnson provides an analytical methodology to the study of the today's more go-go forward-looking obituary, the structure of which consists of such intriguing elements as the phrase, the tombstone, and the song and dance, none of which are to be overshadowed by the necessity of colorful quotes sprinkled throughout.

More than just padding out an obit, quotes exist to communicate the quintessential and crucial inner workings of the dearly or not so dearly departed. “Imagine a round table,” Johnson explains, “and the people who knew the deceased standing up, rapping on their glasses with a spoon, and saying something that fills in the blanks, directly or indirectly.”

And imagine how these people might also tip-toe around the pushed-up daisies with euphemistic circumlocution, although the days of calling a crashing bore a “tireless raconteur,” or a chronic alcoholic “affable and hospitable at every hour” are being left behind by some newspapers in favor of directness couched in understated mock-delicacy: “Miss [Hermione] Gingold had an endearingly individual approach to life. In New York she was regularly seen rummaging through other people’s dustbins.”

In a more sober vein, and in more focused and poignant studies, Johnson examines the effect 9/11 had on obituary writing. Confronted with such an unprecedented calamity and death toll, the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief really grew spontaneously, rising up out of the rubble. Though some would argue that they were more vignettes than obits, or “so goddamn sunny,” or comprised the “anti-obituary,” these memorial sketches filled a need, one obituary writer noted, for poetry: “In times of crisis... What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.”

Though some may not have seen it as poetry, that sense of humanity burst forth consistently in the down-to-earth obituaries of Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News. Nicholson had the ability to zero in and precisely convey the personality of the deceased -- and sometimes that meant, if he was writing an obit of a plumber, including a practical tip like how to unclog a sink. “He figured out a way,” says Johnson, “to make the obit porous and let some of the real world leach into the strict borders of the form.”

Nicholson is telling true stories of the individuals he writes about, and in similar fashion, Johnson, in her extended interview and visitation with the retired Nicholson at his home as he tenderly cares for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, lets a lot of the real world -- with all its compassion and humor -- into The Dead Beat.  This all-encompassing consideration colors her careful approach and articulated execution.

Moreover, this profound respect for the tradition and development of obituary-writing serves a profound purpose not entirely or necessarily at odds with the more lighthearted slant some obituarists take, a tack still in the service of exemplification and remembrance perfectly expressed.  "The better the obit," states Johnson, "the closer it approaches re-creation.  It's an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died..."


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