Marilyn Johnson on Writing About the Dead, Not the Dying

The former celebrity journalist talks about her new book on the world of obituaries - both the journalists who write them and the readers who love them.

Marilyn Johnson
Marilyn Johnson (Rob Fleder)

Marilyn Johnson’s new book The Dead Beat explores the world of obituaries — both the journalists who write them and the readers who love them. A former celebrity reporter for Life magazine, Johnson gets what she calls a “perverse pleasure” out of the form and all its variations. She looks at both the history and appeal of the obituary.

Gal Beckerman: Tell me a little bit about your fascination with obituaries. Your book seems to have tapped into a guilty pleasure or what you describe as a “perverse pleasure” in reading them. What’s it about?

Marilyn Johnson: My initiation into the pleasures of the obit page occurred when I found the scientist who isolated Vitamin C’s obituary next to the scientist who isolated Vitamin K’s obituary. I learned a little bit about the science of extracting vitamins that day. But I was also intrigued by the cosmic implications and I started reading the obituaries. I found great pleasure in it. [Later, I found] much more pleasure writing send-offs to celebrities than interviewing them.

GB: Had you been interviewing celebrities?

MJ: Yeah. That’s what you do for a magazine. That’s where the work is. I’m not well suited for it. I don’t have a lot of patience. I’m not star-struck. And also, you know, it’s phony. There’s something essentially phony about it. When you are writing a send-off to a celebrity, an obituary, what you are doing is essentially casting your eye over their whole career. And that’s a much more challenging writing assignment. You really have to think about, that and then you have to have insights that are different from other people’s insights if you want to stand out.

GB: And it seems you have to come to some conclusion about them, about what their life meant.

MJ: I think it requires great skills reporting, writing, synthesizing and analyzing, creative thinking.

GB: In the book you discuss how the form evolved, and that you think now is a particularly interesting time for obituaries.

MJ: I think technology has driven this particular innovation. The fact is that we can read obituaries written by people around the world just by sitting at our computers. You used to have to travel to Toronto to see what they were doing in the obit pages there. … When I started researching this book two or three years ago, newspapers’ Web sites were not very sophisticated. They’ve really advanced. It’s a lot easier to find out what people are doing.

So a guy in Philadelphia in the 1980s starts saying hey, what the heck, lets take a plumber and give him a grand old send off, I bet he was an interesting character. And [the obit] treats him almost as if he was a fictional character. With all that fascination. Other people get that idea too. 9/11 [and the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief series] helped to advance that movement rather spectacularly. People syndicated that and they were reading that in Oregon, which is why the Oregonian now has a fantastic obit pages. Now with Katrina, you think the poor people at the Times-Picayune were going to get by without doing fabulous obituaries of some of the Katrina victims? They were under a tremendous amount of pressure.

Then there’s the Brits, who have great fun. When they start having fun with it, fun in terms of writing humorously, it’s really great.

GB: When did that start happening?

MJ: That happened in the 1980s also. We’ve had about twenty good years of people doing interesting things …Here’s one I read today. It’s in the Daily Telegraph about George Sassoon, here it is: “George Sassoon’s personal life was often turbulent; handsome and charming … and not notably monogamous.”

GB: That’s funny. What kind of responsibility do you have to the family when you write something like that? Is that something that obit writers have to negotiate with themselves?

MJ: I think if you’re at a small community paper and it’s a small town, I think you need to resolve that you’re interested in the truth. There’s always kind of a bail-out clause, which is if the family really doesn’t want the person written about. For instance, if a loved one bragged about military service that might not have actually happened and the obit writer finds out, that writer could go to the family and ask if the family would prefer that they didn’t write about the person at all. To me that is reasonable, especially in a small town.

Otherwise, I don’t think you owe anything to the family. You owe them the truth. You are doing more than just reporting the facts. You are trying to conjure somebody up, to give them a curtain call. So to try and do that with somebody you don’t know, there is an art to it. The prose has to be alive and the ear has to be tuned to the person’s voice. What you owe to the family is to get that right.

GB: But I imagine that can sometimes conflict with the family’s conception of the person.

MJ: Well, sure, any time that you take a life of, say, 93 years and put it in a few column inches, you are doing an act that is not going to make everybody happy. What’s incredible is how many people get it right. How many people have families who come to them and say, I don’t know how you did it, but you got it.

GB: It’s almost like you need distance to fully see the person.

MJ: The distance helps a lot, and they call around. Some of these people do 10 interviews. It’s very intensive if you do it right and with the kind of skill that I celebrate.

GB: And you don’t have much time.

MJ: It really compresses it. I think it’s a heroic act of writing when you do it right. Now tell me why does ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] only celebrates obituary writers every 20 years? It gets no respect.

GB: You said they’ve changed enormously over the last 20 years. What did they used to look like?

MJ: Well, they used to look like a bunch of very serious white guys and a list of their jobs, and clubs and accomplishments and survivors.

GB: So they weren’t writing about everyday people.

MJ: No, not at all. They were writing about prominent people. And the women were all daughters and wives. No, they really aren’t all that interesting, except as sociology or archeological artifact. In the late 1800s, you could read — and I just read this on the New York Times’ Web site, which is really good about putting up old obituaries — one for Louisa May Alcott where you have to read about her death scene for so deep into it before you get to her life. The whole piece was about her death. We take care of that in a phrase now.

GB: It is interesting that obituaries have such tight structure. It seems a bit like jazz in that way, in that you have these rules and then you improvise around them. I wonder if that helps makes the writing of them so creative.

MJ: I think it really calls out the best in some of these writers. And how they convey a style. How does Margalit Fox [at the New York Times] convey such style when she absolutely adheres to that structure every time? It’s incredible. You see someone like Gayle Ronan Sims at the Philadelphia Inquirer, she can do it all. She can do it straight as an arrow but also infuse it with personality and character.

GB: Do you think the structure kind of keeps things in check, keeps the person coming back to the necessity of chronology, to those certain number of things that have to be there?

MJ: It’s really hard to invent a structure that is organic to what you are trying to say. So if you are operating in a very short period of time with many factual demands and you need to include that kind of spiritual, personality, quality that makes the prose alive, that element that makes it more artful, if you have to do the reporting, the art, and do it all in a short amount of time, structure’s your friend. You can really push against it. But it’s challenging to make it your own and the fact that so many people are doing it is very interesting.

Lately there’s been a kind of hybrid form emerging. One of the presumptions of the egalitarian obit is that it’s a little bit looser, it’s more like a short story, it doesn’t adhere to structure as much. And it tends to be more sentimental. It tends to be about someone the writer knew, or someone known in the community. It’s like an ordinary person and you get this gushy feeling. But you have writers who are operating today in that form who have stripped it completely of sentiment, and that’s an interesting innovation.

GB: What does it mean to strip it of sentiment? To give as much attention to the light and the dark of an ordinary person’s life?

MJ: I read obits, I still read obits that have things like, “he’d give you the shirt of his back,” “surrounded by a loving family,” “never an unkind word” — bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. What you see in something like Amy Martinez Starke [at the Oregonian] is “intervention was unsuccessful.” She’s playing it straight. And to me, I’d like to know that. And, of course, we’re all human. People are built up as heroes and it’s really only a matter of time before we find their Achilles heel.

GB: Is there a favorite obituary that stands out in your mind, something you really feel achieved perfection in the form?

MJ: There was an obituary by Elaine Woo at the Los Angeles Times about a young man, David Reimer, whose life was the basis of John Colapinto’s book about a person born with both sets of genitals. They made him a girl at birth and he was not a girl internally. And it was heartbreaking. He ended up dying quite young. It’s heartbreaking and fascinating. It’s haunted me. He was basically an ordinary person whose life could not have been more fascinating or instructive. And it was done with great sensitivity, delicacy, and you finish reading it thinking that we were in the dark ages when he was born. In the last paragraph, Woo quotes Colapinto who was a source for a lot of the obituary: Reimer said he didn’t blame his parents. “But I couldn’t be happy for my parents. I had to be happy for me. You can’t be something that you’re not. You have to be you.”

And that pretty much sums up all the voices I hear on the obit page when they’ve been successfully captured by good obit writers: no matter how outrageous, sad, funny, sweet or tragic the subject: “You have to be you.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.