Obituary writing not dead yet

Documentary studies the time-honoured art and those who practice it


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‘You’re an obituary writer. Isn’t that depressing?”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/09/2017 (1791 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

‘You’re an obituary writer. Isn’t that depressing?”

Obituary writers often get this question at cocktail parties. And no, the job is not depressing. A good obituary, as one of the subjects in this wonderfully engaging film explains, “has next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.”

This affirmative, expansive attitude spreads into Vanessa Gould’s documentary. Far from being depressing, dirge-like or morbid, Obit is vivacious, funny and effortlessly entertaining.

Gould (Between the Folds) focuses on several New York Times obit writers as they work to sum up a life in a few hundred words and under tight deadlines.

We follow the fascinating arcs of individual lives. Sometimes these are the well-known narratives of the great and the good, the famous and infamous. But there are also people you might not have heard about until you actually read their obits — a belly dancer, an expert on exotic chickens, a typewriter repairman, a Catskills matchmaker, a “blockhead” from the old circus sideshows.

Gould relies mostly on conventional talking-head interviews, but these benefit from lively editing by Kristin Bye. She also brings in archival stills and old film footage, which can be an overused documentary technique but here suits the subject. As one of the interviewees points out, a colloquial term for death — saying someone “is history” — is actually an accurate way of describing their trade. The obituarist catches that precise moment when a single life is absorbed, in a very final sense, into the larger sweep of history.

The obituary writers want to do right by the individual men and women they are writing about, while also addressing their ultimate subject — the value and meaning of life, even in the face of death.

The film also delves into the delicate topic of advance obituaries — the term for write-ups prepared ahead of time, just in case. One could read Obit as a bit of an advance obituary for traditional media.

As with any deep dive into a daily newspaper in the 21st century, Obit ends up being an investigation into the current state of journalism. We see the New York Times, particularly in its print edition, pressured by changing technologies and staff cutbacks.

The obituary writers often rely on the newspaper’s so-called morgue, a cluttered, seemingly chaotic collection of old filing cabinets crammed with fragile yellow clippings (because, contrary to popular belief, not everything is on the internet). Once staffed by 30 men and women, the morgue is now staffed by one lone guy, who seems to be getting marvellously eccentric in his strange, solitary little fiefdom.

The obituary writers, for their part, are fighting the good fight — for journalism as a whole and for their particular beat.

These are good journalists: open, enthusiastic, curious, conscientious, critical.

The last remaining New York Times archivist, Jeff Roth, searches the newspaper’s ‘morgue’ for specific clippings.

All veterans — writers often get moved to the obituary beat shortly before they might need an obit themselves, one subject jokes (sort of) — they still grapple every single day with issues of ethics and esthetics. Who deserves to be publicly memorialized and how can that best be done? One man loses sleep over a perfect phrase lost or a fact that should have been more rigorously checked.

Basically, they want to do right by the individual men and women they are writing about, while also addressing their ultimate subject — the value and meaning of life, even in the face of death.

“There’s nothing you can do about dying, by the way,” one interviewee deadpans. “I thought I might point that out.”


Updated on Thursday, September 14, 2017 1:11 PM CDT: Adds sidebar.

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