Synopsis: Every morning, a small staff of obituary writers at The New York Times deposits the details of three or four extraordinary lives into the cultural memory – each life’s story spun amid the daily beat of war, politics, and football scores. It’s amazing what goes on in the obits.

OBIT is the first documentary to look into the world of editorial obituaries, via the legendary obit desk at The Times. The film invites some of the most essential questions we ask ourselves about life, memory and the inevitable passage of time. What do we choose to remember? What never dies?


Obit 7.25

eyelights: the participants’ musings on mortality.
eyesores: its limited scope.

“Obits have next to nothing to do with death and everything with life.”

I have no illusions about my own mortality. As someone who’s struggled with depression for most of his life and, in the deepest depths of it, contemplates suicide, there’s no doubt in my mind that I will die someday.

Life is unpredictable, as is death.

But you can plan for both.

Personally, I’ve struggled for years with the idea of writing a Will; I have no inkling as to how I would want to divide my things, which has put me at a standstill. And asking friends for what they want has only barely helped.

My father did that years ago, when he was putting his own affairs in order: he asked me if there was anything of his that he should put in his Will. I merely requested a small memento, a childhood memory of our times together.

My father, ever the organized man, gave it to me in advance.

You know, just in case.

I’ve long wondered what I would say about my father at his funeral. I’ve contemplated asking him what he would like for me to reminisce about; I’d want him to be pleased. I think that I should also consult him about his obit.

Actually, I’m even considering writing my own obituary. For starters, as a control freak, I’d probably want to set some guidelines. Secondly, it’s sort of fun to put a spin on your grand finale – as I’ve done with my radio show.

I can’t imagine that it would be nearly as much fun writing up someone else’s obituary, however: you don’t know your subject as well as yourself and you want to be respectful – you couldn’t allow yourself to horse around.

But the obituaries writers at the New York Times find ways to enjoy their work: they thoroughly examine their subjects’ lives in order to distill them into 500-word essays – and also turn a few clever phrases along the way.

It’s a daily challenge that they look forward to – and which is spotlighted in ‘Obit’, Vanessa Gould’s 2017 documentary which takes us into their New York Times offices to see first-hand how they resume strangers’ lives.

Through many one-on-one interview segments, we are familiarized with this group of a half-dozen or so Death Notice artists, their overall approach to their work, as well as their various philosophies about life and death.

It can be rather interesting, with each writer discussing the responsibility of capturing a person’s life in just a few hours (which is complicated when it’s an unexpected death of some importance – i.e. Michael Jackson).

They talk about tracking down family/friends and interviewing them extensively to get basic facts down, doing research, always naming their sources, and how too many details can trip them up; sometimes it’s best to be vaguer.

We get to see the obit morgue, filled with tens of thousands of files full of news and picture clippings. As well as the advance obits – the oldest being from 1931, of Elinor Smith, a young pilot, who only died 80 years later.

Unfortunately, ‘Obit’ is limited to the present day NY Times; it doesn’t go back in the history of the department, save for the guy telling us the “morgue” used to have 30 people running it and that now he’s the only one there.

To me, this documentary, though interesting and informative, felt one-note, lacking scope. I mean, why should we at all be interested in the New York Times’ particular obit department? That isn’t established here at all…

Further to that, why doesn’t the documentary compare them to other obituary teams from around the world, to see how their work differentiates them, to explore how various cultures handle such news – if it’s even considered.

‘Obit’ is lacking meat to some degree, as evidenced by all the historical footage of the New York Times’ subjects while someone reads obituary excerpts over them. It feels like padding, as a way to bridge the interview bits.

Still, I enjoyed ‘Obit’, and even suggested it to some friends. I just wish that there were more to it; to me, it felt like a subject that could have been covered in a third of its current runtime. It didn’t have that much to convey.

Unlike the NYT’s obit writers.

We don’t often have a say in when and how we die, but we do have a say in the way we remember each other. At its best, ‘Obit’ makes it abundantly clear just how powerful that can be, how carefully we should recollect.

Perhaps that’s what matters in the end.

Date of viewing: June 6, 2017

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