Upon the recommendation from Maggie of Maggie Reads, I read The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson, a journalist and obituary fanatic. I had not realized that there were people who subscribed to multiple newspapers just to read the obits and who clipped and collected their favorites, putting them into files or scrapbooks. It sounds morbid until you think it through. Obituaries can be minature biographies, and biographies are increasingly popular in the book market and in libraries.
The Dead Beat is less about the fans and more about the form, its history, and the journalists who write obituaries. Early in the book, the author takes us to Las Vegas, New Mexico where a "wake of obituarists" gathered for the Sixth Great Obituary Writers' International Conference to meet her friends, the journalists who sum up the lives of the famous and those who become newsworthy in death. She also spends an early chapter dismembering obituaries and naming the parts: the tombstone, the bad news, the song and dance, the reverse shift, the desperate chronology, the friars, the telegraph (and the stinging telegraph), and the lifeboat.
Perhaps I enjoyed The Dead Beat so much because it introduced so much I did not know or had not considered. I did not know about the obituary revolution beginning in 1982 when several obituarists, particularly Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News, began writing about ordinary citizens instead of celebrities. They read the paid death notices looking for "Ordinary Joes" with extraordinary stories.
I had also not considered how willing many families would be to discuss the dead in the first hours after death. They often see a way of saving part of the story by telling it right away to a journalist who will write it up. In some cities the obbituarists have become almost beloved for their community service.
Johnson concludes The Dead Beat with a list of newspapers with websites for obituaries, though she notes that she does on occasion still enjoy going to large urban libraries with vast newspaper collections to read the obits in print.
Like Maggie before me, I recommend you read this book. Then go read some obits.
Johnson, Marilyn. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. New York: HarperCollins, 2006 ISBN 0060758759