When a famous person dies, reading a well-written obituary can provide a therapeutic farewell to someone whose life and work touched us. And upon the death of someone like, say, the inventor of the Slinky–whose name we never knew but whose legacy marches on–a good obit illuminates not just one particular individual’s story but also the broader idea of all that is possible in life.
Writing an evocative, compact, accurate obituary is an art, and Vanessa Gould’s joyous documentary Obit takes us on a tour of the joint where some of the best are written–the obituaries desk of the New York Times. How do you capture the essence of a life in 800 words, tops, generally in just a few hours? Gould interviews a number of Times reporters who spend their days telling us about the recently deceased, including ace obit writer Margalit Fox. She sums up why these posthumous mini bios matter and why they’re not inherently depressing: “Obits have next to nothing to do with death and, in fact, absolutely everything to do with the life.”
This appears in the May 15, 2017 issue of TIME.
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