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.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.