“The Dead Beat”

21 Aug

A book about the quirky people who write obituaries. A good, clean read.

I am reading the most wonderful book about obituaries. It’s called, “The Dead Beat” by Marilyn Johnson. (See above.) And I got it in the most wonderful place, too, this book sale where you fill a whole bag full with books for $3. Yes, $3. Johnson is an obituary writer, naturally, and obsessed with them. So I guess she decided to write about all the crazy people who write them. She went to London and interviewed obituary writers there. The Londoners write better ones than the Americans. They also write better about America than even the Americand do. But that’s another story. She relishes in the multitude of newspapers on every street corner. One morning, in Londson, she bought the four best papers, took them back to her rented room and spread them all over the floor. All the best obituary papers. She greedily ate them up, blackening her fingers with newspaper ink as she digested them all. I looked up her e-mail address today on the web but couldn’t find it. I wanted to tell her how much I am enjoying reading her book (haven’t finished it yet) and more particularly, her style. I imagine even when people get so that they’re famous, they still need encouragement. One of the things I like about reading good writing is that I realize how sloppy I’ve become, how long my sentences are and how many words I use to describe something that could be better described with only a few well-chosen ones. Often I stop, when reading “The Dead Beat,” and savor the deliciousness of her perfectly chosen words. When words fit exactly, the result is extremely satisfying.

I notice she very rarely uses adverbs. Gahhh, see I just used two? Without them, her writing is lean and clean. In an understated way, it sparkles. I am equally enjoying both the content and style. As an obituary writer myself, I half-know what she’s talking about. But really, the obits I write aren’t the ones she savors. The ones I write are formulaic. Literally, I follow a formula when writing them. They are no longer than 10 inches. They are filled with lists of associations the person belonged to and survivors lists and where to send donations and which funeral home made the arrangements. It’s all very, very droll. There is no art, no style. There is certainly no freedom, no writerly voice hovering over it all. It is, to put it bluntly, data entry. I take my blue highlighter and mark all the important points on the form I receive, like when the person died and when the person was born. Then, in a robotic trance, I whip all this information into a short obituary. I hurry along with it to get to my more important work, the three lifestyle stories I write each week. See, I write for a weekly paper. And all the time and resources allotted for the obituaries, wherever they’re shoved into the paper, is one measly person. Me. I imagine if I had the time, if I had a whole page devoted to obituaries, if I had the sole job of writing them, I could do nice ones. I could get at the soul of person. Or at least make a pathetic attempt. But I do the obits and the weddings and also write for the paper. I’m the jack of all trades who cannot do one thing really well because well, time doesn’t allow. If weddings were parceled out to one person and lifestyles to another and obit to someone else, I imagine there might be fewer mistakes and a better all-around newspaper. But there’s just me, frantically whipping everything into coherency.

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