The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries
Marilyn Johnson
HarperCollins. 244 Pages. $24.95.
Writing obituaries was never a ticket to obscurity: You had to be there to get the job. Obit writers were kids starting out and old-timers winding down. But it was my best job in the news business, and I’d had a lot in various reporting treks and tumbles through newspapers, magazines and a radio station. In fact, the almost two decades when I wrote the obit page for The Philadelphia Daily News might have been the best job of any kind I ever had.

Friends and family were surprised when after a decade-long string of investigative successes I was pulled from that reporting by the paper’s then editor, Gil Spencer. My last probe in 1979 (with Spencer’s initial blessing) was looking into a murder in the mailroom. Years earlier Mafia-connected loan sharks working in the mailroom had kicked a man to death outside the back door of the Inquirer. I thought this was more of the same, though eventually the police found it to be a personal dispute. But just weeks into my investigation the paper’s publisher got wind of it and became unnerved and angry.

When the heat came down, Spencer didn’t just shut down the probe, he shut me down. Was this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Years earlier I’d told a few young protégés that they would do well to spend only a couple of years doing investigative work because "if it doesn’t burn you out, you will eventually be put out on the curb in a baggie by the very people you work for. If you are good enough, long enough, they will begin to fear you."

As things turned out, however, of all the good newspaper decisions Spencer made for the people of Philly, this one to get me off the investigative beat might have turned out to be one of his best. But it was years before I’d see things this way. For three years I wandered the netherworld of a newsroom outcast. I listened to police radios at headquarters on the "last out" (midnight to eight) shift; I created distant suburban bureaus out of the trunk of my car, and I waited out months of being given no assignments at all.

Then, in 1982, Tom Livingston, then managing editor, offered me "first refusal" to be the paper’s first obit writer. I accepted on the spot. Spencer later told me "You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard you took the job." Soon I embarked on what Marilyn Johnson, in her remarkably vivid, illuminating and detailed book about this job, refers to as "The Dead Beat." And as I started the obit job, the faces of my long-time colleagues betrayed expressions people can’t hide when looking at a terminal patient with that "there but for the grace of God go I" look in their eyes.

Despite many chances to do so in a slew of prominent interviews, including one I did with Johnson for her book, I am sharing details of my odd journey to this beat for the first time in 26 years, in part because the final 19 years of my newspaper life more than made up for the rocky path I took to get there.

Launching the Obit Page

At first, my reasons for taking the job weren’t all that honorable. I saw in the job a way to physically, politically and professionally put myself seven floors above the newsroom, in a room otherwise unoccupied in the Inquirer building’s "tower." This was my chance, too, to get away from the city desk and special projects editors, which over many, many years with many newspapers had become an acquired bitter taste.

Once I began to write obits, words John McCullough, the great chief editorial writer of the old Bulletin said to me years earlier, came to mind: "Writing editorials is like peeing in your pants while wearing a blue surge suit. It feels warm and nobody notices." It worked that way with the obits at first — nobody cared, with the exception of visionary founder of this page, Tom Livingston, who was too busy to pay too much attention. The only ground rule we had settled on: "The newsroom handles the big guys, Nicholson writes about the nobodies."

So I was on my own, a circumstance quite perilous in my younger days, but at age 40 this new beat felt like something I could handle with barely any supervision. Just write stories of people like myself. First come, first served. Let them tell it. Just arrange the words so the obit reads well. Simple, or so it seemed. It didn’t take long for me to cross most of the traditional lines upon which most obit pages operated. I started writing obits like they were personal columns, with a lot of subjective slants on philosophy, religion, cabbages and kings, all meant to enhance the life, times and character of the deceased.

My freedom to explore new ground came about because of Zack Stalberg, the paper’s new editor. He was a Philly row house kid who liked the whole concept of a "common man" obit page and kept the ankle-biters and minor newsroom functionaries at bay. Without "supervision" from the main editors (Who wants the title obit editor?) or undercutting from lesser lights, the style and content were mine to set. Within a few years the page became quite immensely popular with readers and gained national recognition.

To craft the best possible obituary, I called upon every bit of skill, knowledge and life experience I possessed, and those included private investigation, analysis, politics, religion, history, car salesman, cement finisher, oil field hand, city dweller, country boy, drunk, reformed drunk, dock worker, public relations, Sunday school teacher, military counterintelligence, and so on. There was nothing I knew, good or bad, that at some time was not brought to bear in my effort to produce the best obituary, one that was granular and textured by a knowing word or phrase that only life experience provides.

Even so, my wife and kids always said Dad was a Daily News "writer" and left it at that, carefully omitting the dreaded "O" word. Why not? Our collective self-esteem as obit writers back then was such that we didn’t deem ourselves worthy even to organize. It took an energetic, imaginative public relations/public policy person, Carolyn Gilbert, who’d never been an obit writer, to found the International Association of Obituarists at the turn of the 21st century.

The Meaning of This Work

Was the "common man" obit page new? Not really. As Johnson reminds us in "The Dead Beat," small town papers never stopped writing them. But taking this approach in a major market newspaper was likely a first, at least in recent memory, and it brought my craft a measure of recognition it had been lacking. And it brought me the kind of fame I like best — a national reputation and name but letting me still go to any restaurant and not get a good table. Perhaps most important, though, was the ripple effect of what we’d done on our obit page as newspapers throughout the country adopted aspects of our style and, like us, began to feature the lives and deaths of ordinary people in ways that made their lives special. Writers from many of these papers make appearances in "The Dead Beat."

Obituary writing brought me much more than recognition or awards. When I was doing it, I was a giver. I gave the deceased a stage-center send-off with public recognition of their character and achievements, often one they otherwise would not have had. I gave the dead person’s family my sympathy and then a tangible remembrance for generations unborn. My words gave readers thousands of moments to remember of little lives well lived. Perhaps I even gave them the secrets of how to live one well.

Somewhere along the way, I also gave myself back to me. After nearly two decades of being immersed in collecting and writing of brave hearts, gentle souls and honorable lives, my cynicism — induced from some of the careers I had — began to ebb away. The man who retired on May 30, 2001 was quite different than the man who arrived in this job on October 16, 1982. When I walked away on that May afternoon, I did so believing that most men and women are good; most when given a chance will do right; most will show honor.

Imagine it is late night, about 4,000 B.C. An Egyptian laborer creeps out of his crowded, stifling hot mud house to breathe some fresh air and spend a few minutes alone. The light of a sinking moon silhouettes a half-finished pyramid. He looks up at an immense dust storm of stars that is their backdrop and nods respectfully at the mighty hunter Orion. Then he asks himself, as he has done on so many nights in his later years, the haunting, seven-word question asked for a millennia before this night and still being asked today; "Did my being here make a difference?"

Writing obituaries gave me my answer.

Jim Nicholson was the obituary page writer for The Philadelphia Daily News from 1982 until 2001. Before that he did investigative reporting for that paper and worked at 10 newspapers, three magazines, and a radio station.

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