‘Obit’ brings the business of obituaries to life

Obit (2017)

Directed by Vanessa Gould

Ever since I became interested in journalism, I’ve been fascinated with the elegant and insightful New York Times obituaries. When I want to read a thoughtful and informative summation of a person’s life, that’s the first place I turn. So when the new documentary “Obit” promised to take viewers behind the scenes of the small but dedicated NYT obituary department, I was totally in. And this fascinating peek into how these obituaries are prepared, written, published, and received by the general public did not disappoint.

After being notified of the death of someone newsworthy enough to earn a NYT obit, the team of writers who make up the obituary staff often begin in the same place you’d think to—by calling the loved ones of the deceased. They interact with people in different parts of the country and world every day, without overlap. So their job, summing up an entire life in about 800 words (more for big-name celebrities) before the end of the work day, is not an easy one. “Obit” spends part of its time following a few of the writers through their day, checking in on their progress as they try to beat the clock. It’s interspersed with stories about notable obituaries, whether they were notable for the subject, the writing process, or the reception they received once they hit the newsstands. The story arc is a simple, sometimes disjointed one. With a few exceptions, “Obit” follows the obituary through the writing process: from the “morgue,” where advance research is done on older or ailing people that might soon need an obit, to the idea-crafting phase, to writing, editing, and publishing.

“Obit” has a bouncy score that deserves the playtime it receives. Not often do documentaries have a score worth remarking upon, but in this case it helps set the tone for a documentary that one might think should be morose, but rarely is. In fact, “Obit” is often charming. According to one of the writers, obituaries “have next to nothing to do with death; almost everything to do with the life.” If that life impacted the world in a way the staff deems newsworthy, they get their final, beautifully written send-off. Thankfully, some filmmaker decided that this obit team’s story deserved to be told. It certainly did.


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