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.
Death, however, is fair. Preston Robert Tisch, 79, of the New York real-estate dynasty, gets nearly half a page above the fold, plus pull quote and photo. But he’s still dead. In the end he’s no different from “Junior” Percey, a nice guy who used to run Percey’s Taxi Service in the Vermont town where I have a house. According to the lengthy front-page notice in the Bennington Banner, Percey was a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Loyal Order of Moose, and V.F.W. Post 1332. “He enjoyed traveling, driving, going to OTB and attending the horse races in Saratoga Springs.” (Driving?)
“You’re sick,” my friend Katha says when I describe the morbid order of my matutinal progress through the Times. But, like Johnson, I defend it on purely literary grounds: The obit beat has produced some of the best writing ever to appear in the paper. One of the most notable practitioners of the form, Alden Whitman, gathered string for years on such world-historical figures as Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and Ho Chi Minh. He would ransack the yellowed clippings in the Times’s morgue (a word appropriate to the task) and travel great distances to interview his subjects while they were still alive (the only possible way, it occurs to me). He produced what were in essence brief biographies, supplementing his account of the milestones in his subjects’ careers with vivid character sketches. “Picasso,” he wrote, “was a short, squat man with broad, muscular shoulders and arms. He was most proud of his small hands and feet and of his hairy chest. In old age his body was firm and compact; and his cannonball head, which was almost bald, gleamed like bronze.”
Whitman’s obit hegemony lasted from 1964 until his retirement in 1976. The Times had to wait two decades for a worthy successor. Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was a classic underachiever whose career at the paper had been, according to his Times colleague Michael Kaufman, “more circuitous than meteoric.” It wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties that Thomas found his way (or was relegated) to the obit desk, where he discovered that he had a knack for the concise appraisal and the vivid detail that make for a memorable obit. His best work was collected in a book, 52 McGs. Most, if not all, of his subjects were obscure, but Thomas made their obscurity his theme. Anton Rosenberg, for instance, he described as “a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything.” Fred Rosenstiel, who lost his entire family at Auschwitz, “spent his life planting gardens to brighten the lives of his fellow New Yorkers, and to alleviate an abiding sadness in his heart.” Thomas’s own obit, when he died of abdominal cancer at the premature age of 60, read like one he’d written. “Mr. Thomas, a tall man with wavy hair,” was depicted as “the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, alert for the moment when one of them would tell a memorable tale that could never have made its way into Who’s Who but that just happened to define a life.”
It’s interesting that Thomas was in his fifties when he took up the obit beat. (So was Whitman, for that matter.) Maybe you have to be that age to grasp the full import of the obituary. Thomas’s leave-no-corpse-behind method was a protest against the astonishing fact that begins to dawn on you around the time you start getting invitations to join AARP: No one’s going to be spared, no matter how distinctive he is (or was). “There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA,” as the fervent Johnson puts it.
One day I come across an obit for the literary critic Roger Shattuck. Bummer. I admired The Banquet Years, his book on the French avant-garde. On the other hand, he gets four columns and a photograph above the fold. He had a good life: He taught at prestigious universities, won a National Book Award, and retired to his home in Vermont. “Mr. Shattuck,” the piece ends, “wrote painstakingly on an old Remington typewriter in a tiny shack with a kerosene heater, and liked to pursue the traditional way of cutting grass in his meadow with an old-fashioned scythe. He won hand-mowing contests at the local county fair.” We won’t see his like again.
The problem with my obit obsession is that it forces me to think about the one I won’t get to read. Just as well, probably. No news is good news. Not that they’d ever get it right. Won this, lost that … Who cares? Unless I get lucky like Shattuck, they’ll miss the stuff that mattered: “Loved winter sun on snowy fields …”, “… read Boswell’s Johnson when depressed …”
A friend recently directed me to a Website called “Death Clock: The Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away.” It enables you to calculate, “second by second,” how much longer you might expect to stick around. I enter my birthday: March 22, 1949; my smoking status: non- (never mind the Marlboro bummed at a cocktail party twice a year); and my Body Mass Index, a figure arrived at by entering my height and weight. I click on “Check Your Death Clock” and a date comes up: Thursday, November 16, 2006. What the … ! There must be a mistake. I know life is short, but it’s not that short. Heart pounding, I go back and study the questionnaire. Under the category of Temperament, I change “Pessimistic” to “Normal” and click again: Sunday, January 1, 2023. Phew. Still too soon, but it’s a date I can live with (as it were). Only what’s this about January 1? At least it should happen at night. I don’t want to miss my friends’ annual New Year’s Day party.
Obituaries always have the last word—unless their subject is as wily as Grandpa Munster. When sitcom star turned Green Party candidate Al Lewis died on February 3, the majority of news outlets—the AP, the Daily News, the Gray Lady herself—reported his age as 95. It turns out Lewis had tacked thirteen years on to his own age. The AP ran a short correction, while the hand-wringing New York Times stretched its mea culpa to 891 words, under the headline HEY, WHOSE GRANDPA DIDN’T TELL SOME TALES?
The Dead Beat:
Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse
Pleasures of Obituaries
Marilyn Johnson. HarperCollins. 256 pages. $24.95.