- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2017


Working in the obituary section of The New York Times would, on its surface, seem to be either the purview of the perversely minded or, perhaps, those either obsessed with death or overcoming the attendant fear that sooner or later, it takes us all.

And yet the new documentary “Obit.” from director Vanessa Gould is, I am happy to report, the most uplifting film possible about those who spend their days giving their subjects a worthy sendoff in prose.

From diplomats, politicians and entertainers to the everyday citizen, Ms. Gould shows the Times’ personnel hard at work on finding how to, in a few graphs, distill an entire life down to its essence.

What should be included, they wrestle with, and how much detail, when thousands of us die every day, and there is only so much space in tomorrow’s edition to go around? Marriages, children and parents all seem to be de rigueur, but what about unique accomplishments? How much is too much? Or too little?

Ms. Gould’s subjects speak frankly; they find a unique joy in celebrating the lives of their subjects, while simultaneously never seeming to bow to the temptation of the metaphysical, the afterlife, the “meaning” of it all.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the doc follows Times staff into the “vault,” where yellowed papers dating back to the early 20th century pay tribute to the famous and the everyday persons long gone. There’s also the vast file of the notables — many in their seventies and above — pre-written, with only a date and cause of death left to insert.

The “stress” on the job, the writers opine, is when someone famous who has not reached an age of maturity passes suddenly. “Obit.” recreates June 25, 2009, when Farrah Fawcett, long afflicted by cancer, passed. The famous pinup photo of her from the ‘70s was set to be the front-page tribute until word came from California that perhaps, incredibly, Michael Jackson had also suddenly died at a Los Angeles area hospital of then-unknown reasons — thereby requiring a complete scramble and reshuffle, pushing Fawcett to the secondary spot as Jackson’s death rocked the world.

Like all stories, lives too must have an end, and to those left behind, it is up to us to sift through the decades and decades of memories to form an adequate portrait of the decedent. What “Obit.” shows is that distilling a life down into a few grafs is both an art form and a necessary ritual of helping the living to move on.

If it is in print, the logic seems to be, then it is real — and perhaps the grief and the healing can begin.

“Obit.” opens Friday at the District’s E Street Cinema.

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