Art of Writing About Deaths Captured in Documentary

Still from the documentary “Obit” courtesy of Vanessa Gould.

For many individuals, obituaries may be the only form of written biography left behind after death. However, as writer Margalit Fox says in the 2016 film “Obit”, “Obits have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.” Director and producer duo Vanessa Gould and Caitlin Mae Burke created “Obit”, a feature length documentary that explores the work done at the New York Times obituaries department.


Though it might seem difficult to capture the writing process in film, Burke and Gould reveal the inner lives of the obituary writers and the lives of their subjects lived in vivid color. The film reveals the writing process through shots of writers agonizing over a lede, archival videos of individuals who have lived extraordinary lives, and bringing viewers into meetings where the obituary staff of the New York Times decides which life will go on the front page.


While the film brushes up against themes of mortality, ultimately the movie is a celebration of life.

“I decided to make this film after a friend of mine died, and I pitched his obituary to many newspapers. The only one who accepted it was the New York Times, which is when I realized what they were doing culturally”, explained Gould. She says she reached out to Burke for her help on the film after watching the film “Approaching the Elephant”. “I just thought, this is brilliant, that’s my girl!” she said.


“I almost feel like I was born to be your producer”, agreed Burke, “in college I wrote a paper about the gender differences on epitaphs on tombstones. Even then I was interested in how people are remembered.”


The two went on to talk to The Eagle about books, and people’s relationships to them. “It could be an interesting character study to see how people organize, or don’t organize, the books in their homes.

Still from the documentary “Obit”. Courtesy of Vanessa Gould.

Whether the books travel around the house or stay in their spots. Maybe we could make that movie next.” said Burke.

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