Over the weekend, I finally got to see Obit. This documentary should be required viewing for anybody who writes for a living, and for anybody who work with or within the news media. It’s also for anybody who is thinking about what makes a life matter.
With print newspapers on the decline, it’s likely many people don’t even read the obituary section. I don’t have access to the statistics, but I’d bet there’s huge spike in readership of online versions of celebrity obituaries. Just in the few weeks, we’ve seen tremendous interest in the deaths of Senator John McCain and Aretha Franklin, and a likely increase in online reading of their obituaries.
Perhaps most people don’t think a lot about what goes into writing an obituary, but it takes a special skill. Writing about someone who has died takes sensitivity and a sense for what is newsworthy. A good obituary is informative and interesting, while giving you an overview of the person’s life and achievements. Generally, long-form obituaries are only written for politicians, artists, inventors, celebrities and other notable people. Just yesterday, I read an obituary in the Washington Post for Mel Elfin, who was the long time Washington editor for Newsweek Magazine. Elfin was not a celebrity per se, but his decades of in Washington political and news circles probably touched lots of DC insiders (which is why this obituary appeared in the Washington Post and not the New York Times).
Among the many questions and issues that the featured obituary writers in Obit deal with are these
- What and how much detail to include
- What the lede (first paragraph of the article that includes the most important facts) should be
- What questions to ask to the relatives, and how much to fact-check what they say
- Importance of verifying facts
- How to follow the arc of a life that has fits and starts
- Importance of graphics, and of finding the best image to illustrate a life
There’s a lot in the documentary about the news process: editorial meetings, pitching, finding images, fact-checking, and working on deadline. This is why this should be required viewing for public relations practitioners, who need to understand news judgement, and how things make it into the news cycle.
Finally, what writing (and reading) obituaries does is make people think about mortality and how they want to live their lives. You think about what you will be remembered for, what you’ve done here that is “newsworthy.” So do yourself a favor–watch Obit. It’s available streaming on demand, and on Kanopy.