The field has changed, especially in the last quarter-century, in both style and subject. No longer must an obituary be simply a dull list of dates and significant events; the Independent of London goes so far as to remove all that mundane info (they call it the "desperate chronology") into a small sidebar, leaving the obituary itself for the more interesting stuff -- the anecdotes, the telling details, the fascinating trivia that tells us more about who this person really was.
And full-length obituaries are no longer reserved for the powerful and the famous. Increasingly, newspapers are devoting space to obituaries of ordinary people who may not have been players on the world stage, but had a large impact on the people who knew them.
That movement towards what Johnson calls "egalitarian obituaries" was already afoot when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and it had a strong influence on the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" series -- not full-fledged obituaries, but brief portraits of the dead and missing, written in a relatively casual style -- which in turn helped to spread the egalitarian movement even farther.
There is now a community of obituary fans, and there are obituary writers who are celebrities within that community: Hugh Massingberd of the London Telegraph, Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News (who Johnson profiles at length), the late great Robert McG. Thomas of the New York Times, who was so highly regarded that an anthology of his best work was published. (It's called 52 McG's, and it is most entertaining reading, indeed.)
A book about obituaries and their writers might sound like gloomy reading, but Johnson finds the warmth and charm in the topic, and captures what it is that these writers do well. As for the appeal of the obituary form, Johnson sums it up nicely at the end of her book:
...what's most valuable about the obit, any good obit, is how it tries to nail down quickly what it is we're losing when a particular person dies, the foster father of two hundred children, or the "revolutionary whore" who wrote books and founded an international library of prostitution, or the woman who "loved to sew pillows and knit newborn baby caps" -- all of them, any of them. The better the obit, the closer it approaches re-creation. It's an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died, but also an act of defiance, a fist waved at God or the stars. And what else, really, do we have besides the story?