The business of writing obituaries may seem, at first glance, a morbid affair. Just think of the title of Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of the New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman: “Mr. Bad News.” But obituary writing is far from depressing and some of the best non-fiction writing of the past 20 years has appeared in the obituary section. The writing is, at turns, poignant, lively, empathic, and full of wit. And a generation of obituary writers have paid tribute to celebrities as well as everyday people.
Marilyn Johnson explored the subculture of obituary scribes in her wonderful 2006 book, The Dead Beat. Here is a tribute she wrote about Princess Diana for LIFE magazine in 1997. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.