'Obit' Follows The 'Times' Team Charged With Turning Lives Into History

Apr 29, 2017
Originally published on April 29, 2017 3:29 pm

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.

"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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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you are the kind of reader who goes straight to the obituaries, here's something to look forward to - a documentary opens this week called "Obit." It follows the staff writers of The New York Times obituary desk. And to learn more about it, we went to our own obit laureate, NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: To be clear, I don't only report obits, but I do do a lot of them for NPR. So it was easy to relate to the deadpan humor - sorry - of such obit writers as Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

BRUCE WEBER: Literally, I show up in the morning, and I say, who's dead? And somebody puts a folder on my desk, and that's, you know - and that's what I do that day.

MARGALIT FOX: 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.

ULABY: The documentary takes viewers through the methodical steps of obit writing, starting with the awkward calls to next of kin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

WEBER: Your husband's full name at birth - William P. Wilson. That's P-A-R-M-E-N-T-E-R.

ULABY: That's Bruce Weber, who left the paper after the film was shot, glasses pushed up on the bridge of his nose, as gentle and dispassionate as a doctor. Documentarian Vanessa Gould spent six days filming the five full-time obit writers of The New York Times as they did their jobs.

VANESSA GOULD: I was surprised at how grueling the work is. And the reporting process was just continually fascinating to me given how many facets it has.

ULABY: Facets polished by Times obituary editor Bill McDonald. He came to the obits desk after editing the arts pages and investigations.

BILL MCDONALD: It's more sedentary. It's more scholarly, you might say. It's deep research.

ULABY: Once The Times obits desk was known as a dead end, so to speak, where reporters were sent to pasture or to be punished. But recently, McDonald says, obits have gained more respect. That may be partly because of the increased deaths of the big demographic slice known as the baby boomers, but, maybe, also because obits are increasingly a chance to compose something that can feel like a tiny novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

FOX: (Reading) In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic, battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness...

ULABY: Margalit Fox got to write a swashbuckling New York Times obit for John Fairfax, who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

FOX: (Reading) 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 laid out for the Amazon jungle. At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar.

ULABY: Obituaries serve a function larger than the bigger-than-life people who often inhabit them. New York Times editor Bill McDonald says in a culture that struggles with talking and thinking about death, obituaries are a secular ritual.

MCDONALD: And I think 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.

ULABY: That explains why many of us like reading obits. Margalit Fox likes writing them, even though people often assume her job is morbid. In the movie, she nails why it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

FOX: 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.

ULABY: Newspapers, says Fox, are dedicated to events of the day. To find history, you usually have to read the obits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

FOX: If you think about one of the slang ways of saying that somebody's died, we say, he's history. 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.

ULABY: The obit reporters of The New York Times made another point that resonated with me as an obituary writer. Every time you do an obituary, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, you fall a little in love with the person you're writing about. Death becomes a moment of grace. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.