Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: The Dead Beat

Johnson, Marilyn. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

As a genealogist, I am quite familiar with obituaries. I use them all the time to add evidence in support of a date or relationship. The type of obituary with which I am most familiar is the one that is written based on a template which survivors complete at the funeral home as part of the package deal. This is not the type of obituary that the author of this book devours. Instead, she sings the praises of professional obituary writers employed by some newspapers who write the obituaries of famous celebrities as well as lesser known persons. Apparently this type of obituary has a somewhat cult-like following. The writers themselves know who is old and hasn't passed away yet, who is in poor health and could die at any time, etc. and begin researching so that they need only add the pertinent details of the death to their prose. Different obituary writers even employe different styles which the author has categorized. I fear that this author would include the type of obituary that I most enjoy in her classification of obituaries that read more like a telephone directory. The writer concentrates so much on her favorite type of obituary that she almost neglects to mention the reasons most people read the obituaries in their local papers--to make sure they are not among the deceased and to see if any of their friends have passed away. In spite of its weaknesses, this book does provide insight into persons obsessed with reading (and writing) obituaries of this type.

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