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Lessons from "Obit," the documentary

November 15, 2016

Tags: obituary, New York Times

Vanessa Gould’s fascinating documentary Obit, shown at the summer Docs festival in Silver Spring, is a fascinating overview of how The New York Times obituary section is run. We learn how they decide which people to honor with an obit, at what length, with how many photos. The obit writers “document the lives of the recently deceased—constrained by pressing deadlines, stingy word counts and often insufficient information.”

The obits are the ones written by the obit staff; the death notices are the ones paid for by survivors at advertising rates.

What struck me was the hugeness of the Times morgue—the gigantic area where all the old news clips and photos are filed. From the morgue, the Times staff—including the obituary writers—dig up old mostly yellowed news stories. A fellow named Jeff Roth manages the morgue, the “catacomb-like” archival area two levels below ground in the Times office building. Hundreds of cabinets, with thousands of drawers, contain about 10 million photos, drawings, and prints coded, captioned, and filed away—full of information, much of it forgotten.

The Internet is not “100 percent trusted” at the Times. They have not tried digitizing all their clippings, because it is labor-intensive, with so many fragile pieces of newsprint. The Times does not trust the Internet, but in recent times clip only from the papers that don’t have online editions.

Obit writers at the Times try to catch the arc of the person’s life—to capture someone “at the precise point where he or she became history.” How did they get to be how they are and where they are. They try to weave a historical spell, try to make the dead live again. The documentary provides excellent examples.

Who do they write about? Public figures who are newsworthy, which doesn’t always mean they are famous. “Whose obituary would you read first? The inventor of the slinky or the leader of the Soviet Union?” A fair number of obits are about people whose fame is offbeat, somehow, or quirky – such as the man who rowed across the Atlantic.

Obits are an intrinsically retrospective genre – about people who were in their prime 30, 40, or 50 years ago, which is one reason (The Times explains) there are more men than women in the obit section. Obits look at people through a sliding window on history.

The paper assigns word lengths to humans – typically 500 words, sometimes 800. Longer obits signal a judgment of newsworthiness. The truly newsworthy might warrant two photos, or three. The very famous may start on page 1; the truly famous may start “above the fold” on page 1.

Normally the Times obits start with a news lede, using the verbs “dies” or “died.” No euphemisms, no “passed away,” no Hallmark card sentiments.

The cause of death typically comes in the second or third paragraph. Times obits must give the source of the information (her doctor said, or The coroner said) because they are still living down erroneously reporting the death of a Russian ballet dancer—and they have been subject to hoaxes

Sometimes they’ll use an anecdotal lede. In one segment they talk about an obit in which the person’s name doesn’t come up until about paragraph five – because it is the backstory that makes his death interesting.

“Advances” are obituaries written well before the deaths of the small number of unquestionably important people. The Times usually has about 1200 advances ready. Mel Gussow, the Times theatre critic, wrote an advance about Elizabeth Taylor in 1999, after three months of research, and it was frequently updated until her death in 2011. Gussow died in 2005, but Taylor’s obituary in 2011 carried his byline. 'Sometimes the dead write about the dead.'

Celebrities who die young are a headache—especially if they die late in the afternoon. A “fortunate death,” to an obituary writer, is reported at 9 a.m. An unfortunate death occurs toward the end of the day, near the deadline for the next day’s paper, which at the Times is 6 p.m. Unless they’ve been sick, reporters are not assigned to write “advance” obits for young celebrities, so the paper was caught off guard with the deaths of Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Michael Jackson.

Working in the obit section used to carry a stigma “(“He’s history”) — as a beat, they were Siberia. But that has changed. Good obit writers have a following. Readers go to the obit section today to read about lives, not deaths. With a great obituary, Gould emphasizes, we realize the power of art to make readers feel a little different about the honoree.


  1. November 15, 2016 9:37 PM EST
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