Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries
The book is an interesting, albeit somewhat ghoulish, look into the realm of obituaries. Although the author has written a few celebrity tributes (glossy infotainment puff-pieces, as opposed to genuine obituaries) it's quite clear that she really has the bug: the mania for obituaries. She clips and collects them, she scans the online versions of newspapers around the world for juicy ones, and on a trip to England, her first thought is not of Trafalgar Square or the British Museum, but of buying print editions of the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Independent to spread out across the hotel room bed and absorb the ink.
Her mania is both a strength and a weakness. Obviously, it inspired the book, and she indefatigably goes to two of the annual conferences for obit writers (which originally got started on a bet), and also travels to newspaper offices and meets and interviews many of the obit writers esteemed among the cognoscenti, including one who (as must needs happen) died during the course of the preparation of the book and saw to it that his own obituary would be written by his selected writer. Also, of course, she has her collection to draw upon for material.
On the weak side, it makes the book something of a traipse through her collection. Like being stuck with a sports fan who shoves baseball card after baseball card under your nose for inspection. Obviously, what would the book be without a lot of snippets of obituaries in it? But it seems to lack an organization or a historical narrative that would help make it more than just a collection of snippets. Perhaps you are not aware, but we are living during a great Renaissance of obituary writing. And Johnson does do some tracing of how this all came about, and what newspapers favor which trends, but since it comes from her collection, the bulk of the book focuses on the mid-1980's to the present. Can you imagine a book of epitaphs, drawing mostly from the last 20 years? Although we are told several times that long ago, obituaries were ornate gothic-novel length productions, few if any of these are quoted.
There's a somewhat lengthy discussion of September 11th and its effect on the New York newspapers in their handling of the situation with regard to memorializing the dead. Though there's nothing particularly disturbing about it, having read it late at night, I had to read another chapter before turning out the light.
There's also an interesting look at alt.obituaries, perhaps the first discussion of a Usenet group I've seen in a book. It's a remarkably familiar and accurate picture of Usenet, both the good and the bad.
Though I don't have the bug myself, I was surprised by the fact that a couple of the quoted obituaries were ones I had read (or at least of the same person). Not just the celebs, but the veteran who was upset that military burials were being conducted with a cassette recording of Taps, so he set up a volunteer honor guard and travelled at his own expense to play the bugle at military funerals on the West Coast. I'm glad he was remembered for his life, but the nature of obituaries means that these people are remembered too late. It's not possible, of course, but at the Academy Awards, they always run the reel of dead people -- wouldn't you like to have seen all those people on stage last year getting a chance to talk about their work and say goodbye as the music swells and they get a standing o.?
That's perhaps the greatest reason why I'm not likely to catch the obit bug. Even if the obituarists turn a life into an elegant historical still-life -- a fitting conclusion to a life -- it is still a dead-end, after which the rest is silence.
OK, you've suffered my review enough, now the quotes:
A sign of the obituary Renaissance, as practiced in England, 1986: "The 3rd Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila, aged 55, provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the heriditary principle."
[I order you all to click that link.]
"Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B."
"Society today does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket, and a friend on either side."
""Would Father like regular or decaf?" the [96 year-old] 4-foot-something Werfel asked them one by one.
Regardless of the priests' individual preferences, she filled all their cups with coffee from the same pot. The coffee drinkers silently accepted what they got, as though Werfel really could turn regular coffee into decaffeinated, much the way that the biblical Jesus turned water into wine."
"She was not in the least snobbish. Mr Ray from the nearby gypsy encampment was a regular lunch guest at Playford, partly because Pempe rather sympathised with his view of the proper way to die: "I wanna be lying in a ditch with the beer running outta me mouth.""
"Langan rejoiced in daring attractive young women to strip naked in the bar in return for limitless champagne."
"Dr. Bombard became an instant legend in France in 1952 when he drifted from the Canary Islands to Barbados in a small rubber boat. He joined a long list of Frenchmen who have performed seemingly silly feats at great hardship and, often, immense risk."