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RIP: Long live obit writers, who save their best for last

If the truth be known, the obituary -- that story in your local newspaper chronicling the life and death of a famous or not-so-famous citizen -- has been the bane of nearly every young reporter whose daily craving has been to win assignment to "real news."

That same obituary to Marilyn Johnson, a staff writer and editor for national magazines like Life, Esquire and Redbook, represents the essence of journalism. And to Johnson, the practitioners are not just mere reporters.

In her book, "The Dead Beat," the obit writers for English language publications around the world make up a cadre of the elite, the most clever, and the wittiest among all those who would call themselves journalists.

If you're of kindred spirit, you'll love this bright, almost lyrical little volume of delicious tidbits about the final send-off of people whose names you've known, along with insight into many of the nameless people who wrote the stories that helped send them off in style.

There are the interviews with the brightest and most clever obit writers in New York and London, and glimpses of the discussions coming out of the annual conference of obituary writers. Yes, even obit writers have their own national conference to contemplate the life expectancy of their work.

This volume contains its share of bad newsroom humor, like the obit writer who proudly announces, apparently with the straight face of a mortician, that "God is my assignment editor." But somehow, thanks to Johnson's gracefully light touch, it never stoops to ghoulishness or morbidity.

This is what you might call an interesting little curiosity of a book, a quick one-night stand, or a delightful but soon-forgotten companion for a cross-country airline flight.

Her two-liners from the lives and obits of Hollywood celebs and Washington big shots will keep you asking for more. Johnson counts Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Katherine Hepburn, Bob Hope and Marlon Brando among the famous she has described in their obituaries, which by the way must never be confused with those alphabetical listings of repetitive paid ads generally referred to as death notices.

Johnson fantasizes over the status of her fellow obit writers in the larger pecking order of the Fourth Estate, and romanticizes a little about the lasting qualities of their work.

She makes more than one reference to "a good day on the obit page," that is, a day when fate brings the stories of more than one member of the rich and famous together on the same page. But for this reviewer -- and longtime editor -- the true test of a good day on the obit page is every day my name fails to make the list.

Former Managing Editor Ed Cuddihy wrote and edited his share of obituaries during 43 years at The Buffalo News.

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>The Dead Beat

Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries

By Marilyn Johnson

HarperCollins, 244 pages, $24.95

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