You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Art of the New York Times Obituary

A new documentary examines the strange lives of the journalists who man the death-desk at the paper of record.

Ben Wolf / Kino Lorber

What do Leonid Brezhnev and the guy who invented the slinky have in common? Nothing, besides being dead. Each also warranted an obituary in America’s paper of record, the New York Times. They earned that spot—although, of course, no obituarized person is around to enjoy that particular honor—through the nebulous idea of impact. OBIT, the new documentary from director Vanessa Gould, lingers at the newspaper’s death-desk to think through the meaning of remembrance, and to show the workday of these uncommon journalists.

We meet Times obituary editor William McDonald, writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, and Paul Vitello, and the sole remaining clip filer (where once there were 30), the rangy and bizarre Jeff Roth. The practicalities of their workday are the documentary’s best details.

The film opens with a phone call: “Where was he when he died?” So much time is spent on the phone, checking facts, because the facts of each workday are not known until that day begins. “Literally, I show up in the morning and say, ‘Who’s dead?’” one writer explains. Most obituaries run to 800 words, it seems, although they can go down to 500 or up to thousands upon thousands in the case of, say, a dead pope.

The writers insist that the word-counts are not about placing a numerical value on the worth of a human life. But, of course, they are measures of newsworthiness: At the Page One meeting each afternoon (which is thrilling to watch), each desk pitches their stories. Slinky guy is never going to make it above the fold.

The movie is structured around individual deaths and the obituaries that followed them. John Fairfax, the record-setting ocean oarsman, who attempted suicide by jaguar. David Foster Wallace, whose dad the obituarist had to call on the day his son died. Jack Kinzler, who saved Skylab, a billion-dollar space station, with a makeshift parasol. In a particularly charming story, Kinzler’s family cold-pitched the Times, which initially didn’t believe them. But after checking the “morgue”—the Times archive filled with obituarizable old clips—the paper was delighted to memorialize this remarkable man, who was otherwise slipping into history’s abyss. (Ten to 15 people call the obit desk every day, asking to have their unremarkable grandfather written up.)

In many cases, the obituarists race the clock. After finding out who is dead that day, they have seven or so hours to file their pieces before the print deadline. I’d always assumed they had most of the obituaries on file already, and indeed they do have over 1,700 “advances.” The oldest advance they have ever used, Jeff Roth says, was an obituary written in 1931 about a female high school aviatrix whom they figured would die pretty quickly. They dug it out and used it 80 years later.

When celebrities are “ailing” (their word), the obituarists start drafting. But in cases like Michael Jackson’s, say, they have no warning. They had a few hours in which to put together the entire story of arguably the 20th century’s most influential entertainer, to the standard of the Times. The obituarists tend to write up their pieces about famous people when they reach the end of their careers, when it’s all past them. So, when somebody is very famous and middle-aged—David Bowie, Prince, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman—that celebrity is “too young to do in advance.” One obituarist rather ironically describes the practice of racing to do advances as “triage,” although it is a death and not a life they are saving.

“A fortunate death is one you hear about at 9 AM,” one obituarist says. Such gallows humor is characteristic of these writers’ speech. But much has changed since the obit desk was stigmatized as “Siberia,” the place where soon-to-be-dead or -fired journos were parked on their way out. Still, social stigma remains. All the writers speak about being backed away from at parties, as if they are somehow tainted by death.

But this is a misperception of their craft. “It’s ironic, counterintuitive even, that obits have almost nothing to do with death,” Margalit Fox says. She describes how an obituary is a form that captures a person at the precise moment that they “become history,” a sweet and true take on the slang phrase “he’s history.” The obituarists are remarkably versatile writers—my own editor thinks they must be some of the best writers in the world, to do their job. And they themselves have some very poetic takes on their work. “Artists,” one writer says, “have a hold on our subconscious.” Art makes a person “immortal,” he thinks. When he sits down to write, the obituarist ponders on “the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move anymore.”

The obituary confers immortality in that it preserves the dead person in the “record,” in the sense that the New York Times is a record. But Gould’s film shows us that even this is transient. It walks us around the room where the clips are kept, where Jeff Roth can barely remember where everything is (although his dedication and knowledge are clearly enormous). The obituarists dwell a little on their place in the media landscape, which is speeding towards an uncertain future.

Perhaps it was just all the talk of death that made me fear that this film might be an obituary for the obituary itself. “It looks chaotic,” Roth says of his paper kingdom, “But ... no.” These days, the Times is not just a record of events, but of what a newspaper actually is, or supposed to be, anyway. The lack of staff in the clip “morgue” is a frightening thing. Every obituarist in this documentary attests that they live in fear of “missing something,” when they sit down to record a life. What would we miss, without them?