Friday, July 1, 2011

R.I.P. (?)

"Maybe there's a future in the past, I thought." That's Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. "Enthralled by the fusion of the literary arts, black humor, and pathos," she visits the annual obituary writers' convention and makes field trips to meet with the genre's top practitioners. She is especially fascinated by the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Independent—the unholy trinity of British papers whose obituary writers  "vie for the best details." Here are two samples by the Telegraph's Andrew McKie:
"Tiny Tim, the American pop singer who has died aged sixty-two, specialized in horrendous falsetto vocalizations of sentimental songs, and cultivated an appearance of utter ghastliness to match." 
"Dr Atkins, the diet doctor who did so much to help women, and blighted the lives of their husbands and partners, died when he slipped on an icy pavement and couldn't get up. Why couldn't he get up? Because he weighed three hundred pounds!"
"A great British obit doesn't read like a prosaic resume" writes Johnson. "It is an opinionated gem of a biography, informed by all kinds of history, high and low, including gossip. It has the clear-eyed perspective of an op-ed piece and the drama of the news." Esteemed greatly by her colleagues in the "dead beat" is the Economist's Ann Wroe. Also a biographer, their in-house sender-offer calls her work "a writerly job. That sounds awfully boastful, but it's a form of literature."

Besides the often-humorous, tour-de-force-type essay on the famous exemplified by the Brits, a new breed of American journalists have revolutionized the obituary genre. These writers extol the idiosyncrasies and virtues of John and Jane Doe. Instead of presenting a cut-and-dried litany of events and accomplishments, they seek vivid quotes, observations, and memories from people who knew the deceased. Chief among them is Jim Nicholson, former investigative reporter turned feature-style obit writer whose "bright shards of detail and glimmering quotes" have graced the Philadelphia Daily News since 1982."There aren't any boring people; there are just boring questions" says Nicholson. Other purveyors of "obituaries with that vital spark" include Canada's Globe and Mail, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

The Times' Margalit Fox is a particularly creative force in the field. Writing of the death of Verne Meisner, an important figure in the world of polka, she delved into the culture behind the dance:
The demand for polka is insatiable. The decades bracketing World War II were its heyday in the United States. And though the advent of rock sent polka into decline, for its most ardent fans, there was no giving up. They simply went underground. Today there are polka parties and polka clubs, polka conventions and polka cruises, polka chat rooms and polka tours, polka museums and polka memorabilia. Concentrated in the Upper Midwest, the polka subculture spans the country, with tens of thousands of adherents, perhaps more. One of the great pop-culture fads of 19th-century Europe, the polka originated, possibly in Bohemia, in the 1840's. For the time, it was a daring dance: men and women in a tight clinch, stomping across the floor to a vigorous 2/4 beat.
Besides pointing the reader to websites and newsfeeds with up-to-the minute data on who has kicked the bucket and how, The Dead Beat offers an appendix of obituary resources for the internet age. But let's let Winston Churchill have the last word: "I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."


  1. Mr. McKie was a little harsh with Tiny Tim--whose real name, if my trivia mind serves, was Herbert Khaury. He knew his act was silly and played it for every laugh, and did it well enough to rate this obituary. Critics love a hatchet job because it highlights their wit, but the dead cannot reply. If Tiny Tim evoked a smile, in mirth or mockery, he lightened the mood for a while, and hurt no one.

  2. Yes, I looked at some other sources and they commented on his love of American song and his encyclopedic knowledge of it. He had kind of a bum deal with bootleg recordings too.