At the breakfast table, I gobble my granola and prepare to face down the New York Times. I used to work my way from front to back: Page One (HOUSE APPROVES TAX CUTS; ADMINISTRATION DEFENDS TERROR POLICY), National News, Editorial (Go, Krugman!), the grisly Metro, Arts. . . . By the time I got to Business my fingers were as black as a Linotypist’s. But not even Boldface or the phone-book-thick real-estate insert from Douglas Elliman can hold my attention now. It’s not the news of the day I care about; it’s the news of eternity. “O dark, dark, dark,” intoned T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets: “They all go into the dark.” And since that’s where I’m headed—not this second, but sooner than I’d like—it’s to the obituaries that I turn.
Furtive polling of my contemporaries—“Are you, like, more into obits than you used to be?”—reveals that I’m not alone. The first baby-boomers are turning 60 this year, which means that for some 78 million Americans, the end of the world is nigh. Eliot’s “they” is about to become “we.” And since whatever happens to my solipsistic generation—including death—has never happened to any generation before, this new “development” is sure to occasion a tremendous outpouring of commentary.
Early confirmation arrives in the form of an entertaining book called The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. The author is a luckless writer named Marilyn Johnson who has a drawerful of obits written for Life magazine, which, alas, expired before her subjects did. The long-lived Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope missed out on the posthumous honor of Johnson’s obsequies. “There was something eerie about my failure to pick goners,” she mourns.
Johnson’s tenacity is admirable. If she can’t get her obituaries published, she’ll write about the genre. A hectic necrophile, she basks in “that warm and special glow that comes from contemplating what has just left the building forever.” She claims to glance over the shoulders of people in coffee shops and to strike up cheerful conversations if they happen to be reading the obits page. She travels to London, “the Obituary Capital,” to hang around with obit-Brits at the Groucho Club and visits the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference, held in a godforsaken town called Las Vegas, New Mexico, “at the corner of a ragged historic plaza where condemned men used to be hung.” She meets obit writers with names like Black Mariah and the Doyenne of Death; she discovers the existence of obit blogs (blogofdeath.com, whosaliveandwhosdead.com, deathbeeper.com), an obit radio show (“Final Curtain”), and an obit-writers’ guild (the International Association of Obituarists). It’s a hobby with its own eccentric subculture, like baseball-card or Lionel-train collectors. “Forgive us, but this is what we live for” is Johnson’s cri de coeur. They died that she might write.
How to explain this italicized intensity? Why are we so preoccupied with obsequies? “It’s about keeping score,” maintains David Hirshey, who edited The Dead Beat. “No matter how accomplished you were, if I’m reading your obit, I’m doing better than you are.” So it’s about competition: Who’s on the planet, who’s not. For my generational cohort, everything is about competition. My apartment—or 401(k), or job title—is bigger than yours. Why should our last act be exempt from this incessant measuring?
Reading the obit of a journalist I used to sort of know, I mourn his passing and try to suppress the thought: Wow, that’s a lotta space! No doubt there are better ways to get your name in the paper, but I’m impressed all the same. Okay, so he got generous ink. But where? Above the fold? Was there a photograph? What size? Did the obit begin on page one? Was the byline an important figure at the Times (Michael Kimmelman for artists, Michiko Kakutani for writers)? And if not, was it some hoary obituarist from a distant era, now perhaps dead himself—an indication that the subject was of sufficient heft to have an obit ready to go? These are the determinants of dead-person fame.
The unfamous dead are relegated to paid obits, which I also browse, time permitting. One day I come across a notice for Zygmunt Modzelewski, 101, accompanied by a postage-size photograph of a distinguished white-haired man. The deceased was born Roman Berger, a Polish émigré who, with his wife and daughter, “evaded incarceration in the Jewish Ghettos of Poland” and recorded his experiences in a book titled Hiding in Plain Sight. I’m sorry to learn, on the same day’s obits page for those deemed noteworthy, that Franz Jolowicz, owner of a fabled Greenwich Village record shop, has also died; the seventeen-paragraph story, with photo, attests to the fact that Jolowicz was a fascinating guy—another Pole, by the way. You could buy three versions of Tristan und Isolde at Discophile, his store on West 8th Street. But what about the amazing Zygmunt? How come he only gets a family-financed vanity obit in small print? Life isn’t fair.