Synopsis: How do you put a life into 500 words? Ask the staff obituary writers at the New York Times. OBIT is a first-ever glimpse into the daily rituals, joys and existential angst of the Times obit writers, as they chronicle life after death on the front lines of history.
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): Vanessa Gould
Production: Kino Lorber
  2 nominations.
Rotten Tomatoes:
93 min


Uh, hello, I'm trying to reach Melody Miller.

Ms. Miller, it's Bruce Weber at The New York Times.

I don't know if you got any of my emails,

but we would like to run an obituary about your husband.

First of all, it's fair to describe your husband

as an advisor to Democratic candidates, right?

I mean, he worked with Kennedy in the--

he was on Kennedy's staff, right?


What I'm gonna do is first go through just the usual questions

that we go through with all families, and then I have

some specific questions about your husband.

Your husband's full name at birth?

William P. Wilson.

That's P-A-R-M-E-N-T-E-R?

September 4th, 9/4/28.

And what was his date of death?

So he was 86.

And where was he when he died?

Washington, D.C., okay, and the cause of death?

Did he go to public schools in Chicago?

So he enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War,

and then University of Illinois on the GI bill.

What did he study?


People often ask, "Oh, you're an obit writer.

Isn't it depressing?"

Maybe it's macabre, maybe it's a little morbid.

I'm not sure that writing the obits,

the fact of death is really that much

at the forefront of my mind.

It's almost never depressing, because we're almost always

writing about someone in his or her eighties or nineties

who has died after a long, rich,

creative, fulfilling life.

In an obit of 800 words or so,

maybe a sentence or two will be about the death,

and the other 90 percent is about the life.

So 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.

We don't have much new going on.

Yeah, I've only got two people.

Oh, I was gonna give you

this Argentine cardinal.

He seems to have had a big role in the Vatican.

I think we looked for him already.

The--and I don't think there was anything, actually.

There aren't too many of us doing this anymore.

I mean, you could count them on one hand.

Most papers just don't devote

an entire department to this.

It's a little bit off-putting, you know, in a party situation.

I say I write obituaries, but sometimes, if I'm in the mood,

I say I am an obituarist,

and the reaction is almost always sort of pulling back

as if I were, uh, you know,


You know, they think it's one step away

from an undertaker's job,

with all due respect to undertakers.

Sometimes people laugh.

Sometimes people look at you in shock.

Sometimes people go, "Oh wow, I love obits."

Sometimes people go, "Oh," and go on to, you know,

go on to talk to somebody more interesting than me.

In Italian, they say--

it has the prefix "necro" in it.

It's like "necrologista,"

you know, "necrologica."

So it could be worse, you know,

I just say I write obituaries.

Huh, that's interesting.

Yeah, what can you tell me about his parents?

Beginning with their names.

Now Jane as the usual spelling,

there's no Y in there or anything.

And what did your husband's father do for a living?

A congressman from where?

From Illinois, from Illinois?

A Democrat, I take it?

This is interesting.

He might be worth something.

Dan, have we looked for Herbert Ellis?

He was a British surgeon commander.

- When did he die? - Yeah, you're right.

He died October 4th, it's too late.

Death strikes suddenly and unexpectedly,

and you don't know who you're gonna be writing about

from day to day when you're on the obits desk.

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, that's what I do that day.

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Submitted on August 05, 2018


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