‘Obit’ Celebrates Life Through Those Who Write About Death
A fascinating new documentary shines a light on the New York Times obituary desk, and how its work reveals crucial truths about our society and culture.
Obit opens with the sight of The New York Times obituary reporter Bruce Weber (who’s since retired) on the phone with a source, asking for key details regarding a deceased person about whom he’s writing. It’s a predictable list of items: full birth name; date of birth and death (and age at the time of passing); location and cause of death; and educational and professional background. In other words, it’s information everyone expects to read in an obituary, a recitation of facts and figures that provide some basic overview of the individual in question.
That type of material, however, is only part of what makes an obituary entertaining, moving and vital, as Vanessa Gould’s captivating documentary proceeds to elucidate. Hunkering down with those who man the Times’ obit desk, Obit—opening in New York on Wednesday, April 26, with more nationwide cities to follow—shines a fascinating light on a vocation that, as writer Margalit Fox explains, was as recently as two decades ago considered a wasteland reserved for reporters who had either gotten into trouble (and thus required punishment), or who themselves were nearing the end of their own mortal tenure. It was a post where older newsmen and women immersed themselves in the “macabre” and “morbid” subject of death and loss, fixating on the end instead of enjoying the here-and-now.
“Oh, you’re an obit writer—isn’t that depressing,” Fox says she often hears after revealing the nature of her Times beat. It’s a predictable response, and yet one that Fox herself finds more than a tad amusing, if only because it fails to grasp what obituaries truly are, and the purpose they serve. That’s because, as she opines, “it’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death. And in fact absolutely everything to do with the life.”
The same can be said about Obit, a fascinating look at the way in which these memorials function as not only tributes to fascinating, influential, idiosyncratic lives, but also as crucial records about our society and culture. As Gould’s raft of Times talking-heads suggest in their amusing and thoughtful remarks, they are acts of archaeological reportage, digging deeply into the multifaceted complexity of specific stories and, in doing so, revealing much about what was, and is, important about the world at large. They’re micro-sagas whose relevance speaks to crucial truths about our civilization—what we prize, what we scorn, what we dream about, what we fear—and thus their authors are akin to historians, tasked with researching, analyzing, and recounting our pasts.
There is, as newspaper readers know, a hierarchy to the Times’ obituary coverage, with the most prominent one receiving above-the-fold front page coverage, and others relegated to the section proper, where the most prestigious write-up is noted by the inclusion of “dies” or “is dead” in its headline (all following stories don’t need to do likewise, because the main piece implies it for the rest). The more consequential a subject, the longer his or her obituary. Those decisions are spearheaded by editor William McDonald, who confesses that the paper makes its selections based on whether “Their lives had an impact of one sort or another.” However, as he confesses, “the word ‘impact’ is infinitely elastic,” meaning that in its choice of subjects, the paper is itself making a value judgment on their immediate and long-lasting significance—and, by extension, making a judgment about what it was, during their era (or today), that was most noteworthy.
Such judgments don’t always come easy. Nor does the onerous work of making sure that obituaries are both comprehensive and accurate—twin duties that can be difficult to fulfill, when faced with immensely tight deadlines, a topic about which a reporter has little prior knowledge (much less expertise), and sources that can be unreliable or unavailable. Those constraints make obituary writing a stressful occupation, and that’s before factoring in the sheer unpredictability of the next assignment. As Weber confesses, he shows up to the office every day and literally begins by asking, “Who’s dead?”
Moreover, the Times isn’t interested in simply writing itemized run-downs of accomplishments or failings; rather, it seeks in-depth stories that employ a reasonably standard form, and then bend and experiment with it, injecting humor along the way, in order to educate and illuminate in a way that’s gripping, not stuffy. That’s fully evidenced by one of the most moving sequences of Obit, in which Fox’s evocative obituary for John Fairfax—the first lone oarsman to cross any ocean in recorded history, as well as a lifelong adventurer—is married to on-the-scene movies of him accomplishing that groundbreaking feat. Gould frequently embellishes her interviews and behind-the-scenes newsroom footage with film and news clips, the better to convey how, at its finest, such posthumous reporting is itself an art form, one aimed at imparting a richer sense of an individual’s character.
Using as its general narrative spine Weber’s work on an obit for William P. Wilson—the advisor to JFK for his watershed TV debate against Richard Nixon—Obit discusses the pressures of the gig, and the horror of making (inevitable) mistakes, through the lens of numerous examples, including recently deceased celebs like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Jackson and Robin Williams (as well as Prince, David Bowie and Carrie Fisher, who’ve been added to the doc since its 2016 Tribeca Film Festival premiere). It also manages to spend some time in the Times’ astounding news-clipping archive “The Morgue,” now run by one man, Jeff Roth, which houses an astounding collection of articles and photos to be utilized by the paper’s staffers.
What emerges from Obit is the immense responsibility of this line of work, which invariably conjures in its practitioners' minds thoughts of their own demise. Yet it also expresses the excitement of obituary writing—a profession that puts you intimately in touch with the most powerful, prominent, charismatic, and quirky personalities of the past few generations. It’s a job that’s equal parts investigation, excavation, resurrection and communion, all in service of the diverse array of men and women who’ve shaped the world.