obit copy


Nearly two weeks ago, when we were mourning the loss of Prince, my mind first went to all of that wonderful music, and how much it meant to me for as long as I could remember. Not long after that though, my mind soon drifted to the men and women I met in the documentary OBIT…and I wondered what sort of a day they were about to have.

OBIT introduces us to the men and women employed in The New York Times’ obituary department. Every day, it is their job to look around the world, and consider the people we have lost. If someone lived a life worth noting, they get a formal obituary in the New York Times. We’re not talking about our grandparents here, or the lovely old woman across the street. We’re talking about inventors, politicians, artists, leaders, and innovators.

To land a full obituary in The New York Times is a high honour; one that has been bestowed on both Popes and the inventor of The Slinky.

What will come through most clearly when you listen to the work presented in OBIT, is the beauty and passion infused into the writing. I dare say 99% of the time, the people these reporters are writing about are people they have never met…and yet, by the time they are done extolling the great merit their life was about, we feel as if they were old friends. Their writing, when done well, taps into that soulful effect describing a life well-lived, and by sharing it with the readers, they pass it around like a chalice after a well-crafted eulogy.

It’s especially fascinating to hear about the subtle honours that mark the obituary section. For instance, the headline that reads “(Fill in the person) dies at age (fill in the number)” is the one considered most noteworthy on the given day, and the length of their notice speaks subtle volumes about their importance…with few getting more than 1000 words. For sake of reference, Prince was that day’s headline, and his obituary was over 1800 words.

What’s most important to remember is that when a life ends, what we want to spend most of our weary and worn energy on isn’t thinking about how a person died but rather how the person lived. Their demise, while sometimes untimely or tragic isn’t what makes the deepest impact on us. What they did while they were alive is what matters – how they made this world better, stranger, more beautiful, more enlightened…or in the best cases, all of the above.

The people we meet in OBIT are great writers and warm souls, who face the same challenges and deadlines as many in the print media. They take great pride in documenting these lives, and no pleasure in denoting their passage.

They aren’t the sombre drone of an Italian requiem; they are the joyous brass band of a Louisiana march…a band that only strikes up for the most noteworthy among us.


OBIT plays at Hot Docs 2016 on Wednesday, May 4th, 1:30pm at The Lightbox. It then plays once more on Sunday May 8th at Isabel Bader Theatre – 9pm (official website)