“Obit.” Makes You Appreciate What It Takes to Write an Obituary

The recently released documentary “Obit.” (the period is part of the film’s title) makes it easy to appreciate the work that obituary writers undertake, no matter how brief the obit or how obscure the subject. Focusing on the obituary staff of the New York Times, the approximately 90-minute film shows the lengths they go to to confirm details, find anecdotes and overall make their obituaries lively.

The Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Pro Chapter on Friday evening, May 12, attended the opening of this film at the E Street Cinema in downtown Washington. Introducing the film and answering questions at the end was Bruce Weber, one of the obit writers in the movie.

Much research goes into these obits, we learn. Staff frequently access the print archives of the New York Times (itself the subject of a recent brief story in the newspaper’s recently added daily section explaining the paper itself) for background on their subjects. And the film spends some time in the archives with its one remaining records custodian, Jeff Roth. It’s quite enjoyable to follow him around and listen to him reflect on the history of the clips morgue.

One point made frequently in the documentary is that obituaries are not primarily about death. Rather, as we were reminded time and time again, they are about the lives there subjects lived. It’s a final chance to revisit the person’s life before he or she becomes history.

For that reason, there is intense pressure for accuracy on the obituary writers. We hear a lot about how much they worry about getting even the smallest fact wrong. We see in the movie that Weber at one point has to make a correction because he got wrong the political affiliation of a family member who predeceased the subject of the obit. Always better in these instances to put in fewer facts, he says only somewhat jokingly.

One surprise, at least to this viewer, was the size of the Times’ obit desk. There are several editors, including for photos, at least one staff assistant, probably a dozen or maybe more writers, etc. Just like any other newspaper department, they have their own planning meetings and even participate in the newspaper’s overall page 1 meeting.

In the Q&A after “Obit.” was shown, Weber reflected on why he joined the obituaries staff (he didn’t want to cover retail or basketball, the only other beats available to him when he had returned to the Times from writing a book), on some of the fun obituaries (Yogi Berra) and a little bit on the state of the media industry overall. To no surprise, he noted that there are fewer obituary writers at major newspapers. In response to our question about staffing sizes in the industry, he noted that the Los Angeles Times had eliminated its obituary desk, while other papers were writing fewer obits. The Times and the Washington Post seemed to be the few exceptions among major papers.

A significant theme throughout the movie was the ongoing yet slow diversification of the obituary pages’ subjects. The vast preponderance of the subjects are white and male. This is slowly changing, as widely known members of more recent generations who die are less likely to be white men. Weber (and others in the movie) see the institutional bias toward that one group slowly ebbing. The “sense of what is newsworthy is expanding on the desk,” he said in Q&A (read about his comments here).

@Comm_Daily editor. Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & dog -- civility and good drivers, too. Personal views only.