Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Dead Beat (copy)

As we age, some things just naturally occur: we lose a little hair, we wrinkle a little around the eyes and we begin to hold the newspaper further away, as we read the obituary page. Yes, the aging process gently leads us to the daily reading of obituaries.

In our 20s and 30s, we just glance over the names of the newly departed. If we know the person, we skip to the last sentence to address the donation check or make visitation plans. In our late 30’s through early 50s, we start reading deeper into the announcement, looking to aid survivors by phone calls or food. When is it we start to focus on the age of the deceased as less a curiosity and more a barometer to our own longevity?



As you read obituaries, you start to wish they conveyed more of the person’s past spirit. The articles contain the basics, yet they miss the essences that made a life essential on earth. As Marilyn Johnson says in her new book, The Dead Beat, “A little life well lived is worth talking about.”

Author Johnson claims this is a good time to die. “Historians tell us we are living in the Golden Age of the Obituary.” Three of the biggest papers in America have reporters who report only on the departed—an assignment known fondly in the business as the “dead beat.”

The obituary section, usually assigned to insubordinate reporters as punishment, became an opportunity to weld ink pens filled with bittersweet sentiments. Banished to the basement, reporters figured no one would be reading their work so why not jazz it up. They even took to mock announcements, giving overly flourished eulogies, punctured with an atmosphere of hush, to saintly ghost that were never born.

Famous people require a reporter to research their lives and have the obituary written months in advance. These two-to-three, column-long missives called “canned obituaries” are ready when it is time for the second act.

Violet-eyed, Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary has been written and rewritten as the actress struggles with continuing health issues—multiple broken backs, life threatening pneumonias, hip replacements and now congestive heart failure. One eager reporter, in the early 90s, leaked her canned obit to the presses. After reading them she said, “The best reviews I ever had.”

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