By Anubhuti Kumar, staff writer
9 a.m. and the first question asked in the office — who’s dead? The morning of an obituary writer for the New York Times begins with this question and a cup of coffee. As depressing and morbid as this may sound, the obit writers choose to look at it differently. Their jobs consists not of writing of people’s deaths, but writing about their lives. Vanessa Gould’s documentary “Obit” chronicles a day in the life of the people who chronicle lives.
According to the film, though this desk was historically not a coveted one, this is slowly changing as writers seek to tell the stories of the lives, influential, historical, interesting, impactful and famous as they go from the present to the history books.
One example of a person who might be relatively unknown to the majority of the public is William P. Wilson. While media and TV consultants might be a requisite for modern-day political campaigns, Wilson was the first of his kind, advising John F. Kennedy on the first televised presidential debates and likely winning him the election against Richard Nixon in the 1960 election.
A large focus of the documentary is seeing this obit make it from the writers receiving the news of his death and following it through confirming the facts of his death, researching his work and family, and crafting the story of his behind the scenes impact in changing the political landscape and giving it the spotlight its newsworthiness deserves. The first result on a Google search of his name yields Wilson’s New York Times obituary.
While the obituaries desk might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the newspaper, the film is absolutely compelling as it depicts the writers perspectives on what they do and how they do it. As they research these interesting people that at one point of another captured the public’s imagination, like a man who rowed across the Atlantic and the Pacific by himself, but may now long be forgotten, they give these personalities another breathe of life and another moment to amaze their audiences.
Though the obits desk usually only has hours to write a piece that accurately describes a life, a day if they are lucky enough to hear about it first thing in the morning, when it comes to very famous or important figures who have been in and out of hospitals, are high security risks like the president, or very old, the desk maintains advances on them. Before drafting an advance, they try to wait until the figure is reaching retirement and have completed their work, so the piece reflects their accomplishments without being updated every few months. They currently have 1,700 advances on file.
“Obit” gives a deeper color to what it means to be a an obituary writer and portrays the New York Times’ singular approach to the desk, going beyond just reporting the news of death, but telling the story of the lives of the most interesting and sometimes unknown personalities for the record.