The dreary 20th-century obituary—that résumé of family, degrees, job titles—has in two decades gone from glorified tombstone inscription to tipsy anecdotes recalled at a wake. Mortuary literature has become a surprisingly lively genre, and Marilyn Johnson’s entertaining amble through this transformation ably spans everything from the Sixth Great Obituary Writers’ International Conference to, inevitably, an obituarist’s own funeral.
It’s not as marginal a subject as one might think; the most useful historical genres rarely announce themselves as such. Where else but in an obituary collection like Robert McG Thomas’s 52 McGs (2001) could you learn about the mocking 1930s student organization the Veterans of Future Foreign Wars? Or, in Jane O’Boyle’s Cool Dead People (2001), the librarian “who enraged segregationists back in 1959 when she refused to withdraw from circulation a children’s picture book about a black rabbit who married a white rabbit”? But then, this fine tradition ranges back to the bitchy obits of Aubrey’s Brief Lives in the 1690s and the trippy testaments of William Teggs’s Wills of Their Own (1876). Its latest literary rebirth was launched by James Fergusson at The Independent of London, and perhaps The Dead Beat‘s most telling revelation is that Fergusson previously worked as an antiquarian book dealer. Literature, at least, really can bring its dead back to life.