Every morning, a small staff of obituary writers at The New York Times deposits the details of three or four extraordinary lives into the cultural memory – each life’s story spun amid the daily beat of war, politics, and football scores. It’s amazing what goes on in the obits. There are only a handful of editorial obituary writers in the world, and none are better than at The Times, where obits have become some of the best writing in journalism. Documentary storytelling in print. First drafts of contemporary history. Mirrors of life’s great variety, humor and pathos. Neatly framed vignettes of worlds that will vanish along with their notable stars.
Obit is the first documentary to look into the world of editorial obituaries, via the legendary obit desk at The New York Times. The film invites some of the most essential questions we ask ourselves about life, memory and the inevitable passage of time. What do we choose to remember? What never dies? Longtime obituary editor of The New York Times William McDonald, and past and present staff writers on the desk are featured: including Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello. The Times’ century-old archive (appropriately called the morgue), along with its last remaining full-time archivist Jeff Roth, is also featured.
The writers de-emphasize the death, and tell stories of lives lived in extraordinary ways, often below the radar. With this comes uncommon insights – insights only the rare obituary writer could have – into the passage of generations, the astonishing cycle of life, the ebb and flow of time, and culture as it appears to accelerate and vanish at the same time.