'Obit' Follows The 'Times' Team Charged With Turning Lives Into History
If you're the kind of person who opens the paper in the morning and goes straight to the obituaries, we've got good news for you: There's a new documentary out this week that follows the staff writers of the New York Times obituary desk. It's called Obit.
To be clear, this is something I know a bit about. Reporting obits are a big part of my job on the arts desk at NPR. Unlike the Times, NPR lacks a dedicated obits desk, and my colleagues and I were frankly envious when we watched the documentary and learned that the Times has five full-time obit writers, including, at the time, Bruce Weber (who stepped down from the obits desk in 2016) and Margalit Fox, who spoke to the pressure of writing obits on deadline.
... it is equal parts exhilaration and terror.
"Starting the day getting a name you've never heard of, knowing that you are going to have to have command of this person's life, work and historical significance in under seven hours — it is equal parts exhilaration and terror," Fox says in the film.
Documentarian Vanessa Gould spent six days filming the obit writers as they did their jobs. "I was surprised at how grueling the work is," Gould says. "I think the reporting process was just continually fascinating to me, given how many facets it has."
The person who polishes those facets is editor Bill McDonald. He came to the obits desk in 2006 after editing the Arts & Leisure pages and national news. He tells NPR that obits are "more sedentary, more scholarly, you might say. It's deep research."
The Times obits desk was once known as a dead-end, so to speak. It was a pasture — or a punishment. But McDonald says obits have recently gained more respect, perhaps in part because of number of aging baby boomers. But obits have also become a place where writers can compose something that feels like a tiny novel. Take Margalit Fox's swashbuckling obit for John Fairfax, who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat. It begins:
In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness, John Fairfax, who died this month at 74, became the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean. ...
Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in.
At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.
At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.
Obituaries serve a function even bigger than the larger-than-life people who tend to inhabit them, says Bill McDonald. In a culture that struggles with talking — and thinking — about death, McDonald says obituaries are a secular ritual. "A lot of people almost don't feel that the death has been fully celebrated, acknowledged, unless there's an obituary to go with it, as if to give that person a certain amount of immortality."
So maybe that explains why many of us like reading obits. Margalit Fox enjoys writing them. People often assume her job is morbid, but in the documentary she nailed why it's not. "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," she said.
Newspapers are dedicated to the day's events, but obits are about history. "If you think about one of the slang ways if saying that somebody's died, we say, 'He's history,' " Fox explained. "And what an obit actually does, which I find very compelling and very moving, is it captures that person at the precise point that he or she becomes history."
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