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 Timesobituary 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.

Check out this fine sampling from the likes of Karen Shirely, Margolit Fox, and the most-talented, Heather Lende. 52 McGs, a compilation of obituaries by the late Robert McG. Thomas, is priceless.

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.