By Tom Allon
It is one of the best-read parts of The New York Times each day, but few admit they read it.
It sounds depressing, but it is actually the most uplifting and inspirational parts of the newspaper.
The weddings section? Nope. It’s the obituaries, the place where the entire lives of important people — some as long as 95 years — are summed up in 800 words or less.
Each morning, a team of editors and reporters at the Times decides which three to five people who died in the last 24 hours merit the obituary treatment. It must be someone who had an “impact” in their lives — from the obvious pop music star like Michael Jackson to the inventor of the Slinkee to the television image consultant who helped JFK defeat Richard Nixon in 1960.
A new documentary movie, “Obit,” playing in some small movie theaters around the city, is the fascinating tale of the incredibly thoughtful and talented people who make up the Times obit team.
But the film is even more than a well-told tale of a unique journalism operation — it is a meditation on what constitutes a worthwhile life and the criteria we should all consider when we measure the impending shadow of our ultimate demise.
What is an “impactful” life? How can we measure who is worthy of a graceful write-up of 500 words or even a front page obit of more than 1,400 words?
The movie, a must see, points out that Pope John Paul had a 14,000-word obituary and rock stars Michael Jackson and David Bowie had their obits splashed across the front page. Then there is the obit just a notch below the front page ones: the “reefers,” important people who don’t quite merit top billing on Page 1, but are “referred” to in the bottom of the front page “teasers.”
There are many quiet stars of this film, but two stood out in my mind.
The first is the gentleman who runs the Times “morgue” (a library of all the old printed clippings and photographs stretching back to the early 20th century), an idiosyncratic and animated man who knows where all old files are buried in a vast room full of overstuffed file cabinets. In a paperless age of gigabytes and cloud storage, he seems like a quaint vestige of an anachronistic era that has ended. But ask any Times reporter and they’ll tell you that he is one of their most valuable colleagues because he can access information that cannot be found on Google or any internet database because it happened before the age of information went up on the worldwide web.
The other subtle star of “Obit” is Bruce Weber, a soft-spoken reporter whose observations and work is the centerpiece of the movie. We watch and hear his graceful phone calls with the relatives of the recently deceased, as he hits just the right note of sympathy while he goes about the task of cataloging vital information about the deceased. He fills out a form to start — where was the person born, what was the cause of death, what were the parents’ professions, and so on, until a clear picture begins to emerge of a life that left an indelible imprint in our society.
We watch Weber as he agonizes over how to report and write an 800-word obituary of the man who helped elect a president in 1960, Mr. Wilson, who was John F. Kennedy’s television image consultant, a very new career in the early days of mass media. Rather than run a dry opening paragraph that sums up the man’s life and includes his age at death and the cause, Weber decides to do an “anecdotal lead,” an opening that talks about the Kennedy-Nixon debate and its importance in the history of our country. Weber’s prose draws the reader in while also making a larger point about the dramatic change in how we elected presidents in 1960 based on looks and telegenic appeal.
It is such a rare treat to leave a movie theater better informed and inspired by the people in the documentary and their clear explication of why their work truly matters.
Run, don’t walk, to see “Obit” this weekend — you’ll look at your life very differently afterwards.
Tom Allon is the president of City & State, NY. He can be reached at tallo