If you were to ask someone their opinion on what it means to be an obituary writer, their initial reaction might be to think that it’s a morbid profession full of depressing days, continually writing about death.  In reality, it’s a job that brings new and unexpected challenges every day as newspaper writers scramble to find the life behind the death.  Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit is a fascinating and engrossing portrait into a misunderstood world and an intimate look at a fading art form.

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The obituaries desk in the New York Times newsroom.

The writers in the obituary department at the New York Times newspaper are a rare breed.  Few newspapers even have these departments, let alone one this big and this group has established itself as one of the best in the business.  As a new day begins, each writer is presented with the task of writing an obituary for someone of importance that has recently died.  We follow a group of nine writers, reporters, editors, and archivists as they begin the often daunting work of uncovering the significant and accurate facts in order to craft an engaging account of this life that keeps readers interested.  They typically rely on interviews with family and friends and any historical news coverage that may have occurred, as well as archival clippings and photographs from a room filled with hundreds of filing cabinets affectionately deemed “the morgue” which sometimes yield surprising results.  These writers have a bigger impact on documenting cultural history than most initially realize.

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Last remaining archivist Jeff Roth searches the New York Times morgue.

In addition to following the inner workings of daily life in the obituary department, the film asks the writers to reminisce about some of their most memorable moments working in this field.  Each can remember pieces that they have written that have stuck with them, be that it was for a famous or prominent figure or that the research uncovered unusual or startling facts.  The film also blends in archival news footage of some of these moments to supplement the story being told by the writer.  The choice to include these stories by the director helps enrich the overall exploration of the film.

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A glimpse into an old folder in the New York Times morgue.

We also delve into the history of the form and how it has changed over the decades to reflect the culture of the time.  Even in today’s fast-paced world, there is still a prevailing sense that obituaries must be sombre and demure given the nature of the subject matter.  While still trying to actively follow the guidelines that ensure accuracy and that the relevant information has been presented, obituaries in the 21st century have in some cases transitioned into exciting and adventurous recollections of a life well lived that engages readers in unexpected ways.  They can take a seemingly uneventful life and spin it into a compelling narrative.

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Obituary writer Bruce Weber at work.

The film displays a respect towards these writers and the tremendous efforts that go into their craft.  The subjects of the film are asked if writing obituaries has changed the way they look at life and for most the answer is a resounding yes.  Writing obituaries forces them to confront their own mortality on a regular basis.  They see universality to the stories and the commonalities that all humans share.  At the same time, being this close to death has taught them to appreciate the time they have and remind them of their aspirations for their own lives.  As the film comes to its conclusion, in an effort to leave the viewer with a larger takeaway message, we are left wondering the same things about our own lives with the question “Will I have anything of significance in my own obituary?”

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