It used to be that writers and journalists sent to toil in the obscurity of newspaper obituary departments were either working with one foot in the grave or on the verge of getting fired. It was a job that no one wanted; unsatisfying writing assignments meant to be delivered in a static, demure, lachrymose style of respectful, archaic prose. But over the past thirty years or so, the staff at The New York Times’ obit department – one of the few “departments” for such a section remaining in the world – has changed things. Combining in depth historical research and rigorous fact checking, this crew of men and women work tirelessly to memorialize exceptional and famous personalities from around the world.
As the subjects in director Vanessa Gould’s Obit explain, obit writers spend much more time looking at someone’s life than how they passed away. They’re job is to capture a person when they officially become history and their story has largely ended. That celebration of life extends to Gould’s film, a charming and nuanced work of humanity.
Gould’s work is a playful peek behind the curtain of those seeking to bring the dead back to life one more time. Although Gould does address why The Times doesn’t profile as many women and minorities as it does older while males, the rest of the film remains a largely positive, lightly critical experience.
But what’s most important about Obit is how it reminds the viewer that exceptional people worth memorializing aren’t always celebrities or politicians. The story of the inventor of the Slinky or a 1930s aerialist could be more fascinating than that of Farrah Fawcett.