What will people remember about you after you’re gone? Friends and family will have personal memories of course, but for many people the last legacy comes in the form of an obituary. “Obit,” a new documentary goes deep into how newspaper epitaphs are written at The New York Times.
Deadly boring? Not by a long shot. It’s a fascinating and funny look at obituarists and the work they do. We’re introduced to the department’s editor, William McDonald, writers Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Paul Vitello, Paul Weber and the inadvertent star of the show, the wryly-hilarious morgue archivist Jeff Roth.
We watch as they decide on who will be included in the exclusive NYT obit page, how much space the dearly departed get—some legacies are whittled down to 600 words, others splayed out across multiple pages—and how they garner information. It’s an old fashioned process; phone calls are made to relatives, handwritten notes are taken. Sometimes mistakes are made, but just as often, as one of the writers notes, “I tend to fall in love with the people I write about.” Most importantly we learn the obits are meant to honour lives lived, not dwell on death.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative—this is more of a slice of life doc—but it does celebrate those no longer with us as much as it does the journalists who write the stories. Take for instance the case of John Fairfax. His claim to fame—he was the first person to cross do a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a rowboat—was just the beginning of his unbelievable life. We’re told he settled a dispute with a pistol at age nine, travelled the Amazon jungle as a teen and once apprenticed to be a pirate.
That’s a hell of a story and “Obit” tells it well, offering a lively look at the men and women who handcraft tales for people whose voices have been silenced.