One of the most quietly interesting things about my parents is that they read obituaries every day. They have for decades. They're classic morning relaxers, adamant that the day cannot really begin unless they've sat in their robes next to cups of coffee and read the Houston Chronicle from beginning to end, calmly passing sections to one another. And during this early relaxing hour, they scan the stories of dead strangers.
"Sometimes I'd know what happened to my patients, but a lot of the time I didn't. I started reading the obits as a way of keeping track." —My Mom
This tradition originated with my mother when she was in her 20s and first working as a nurse. Many of her patients had Parkinson's, severe M.S., seizure disorders. In the early 1980s, more and more young men were admitted to her hospital with the same confounding and terrifying illness that then had no name.
A well-done obit, my mother explains, is like a great short story, fascinating in its sketching of characters and artful economy of words.
"I floated a lot as a nurse," she tells me, "and even when I didn't float to other floors, patients would be there for a week, 10 days, and you'd get to know them and their families really well. People in the hospital cross boundaries pretty quickly. You're doing intimate things with and to them. Then I'd have a day or two off, and patients would either be moved to another floor or they'd be gone—sometimes I'd know what happened to them, but a lot of the time I didn't. With the AIDS patients, I would come back and they would be gone that fast. I started reading the obits as a way of keeping track."
"And then she'd learn more about them that she didn't know," my father interjects.
A well-done obit, my mother explains, is like a great short story, fascinating in its sketching of characters and artful economy of words. But of all the obit sections in all the daily newspapers, it's the obit desk at The New York Times that's truly legendary. A new documentary, aptly titled Obit, illuminates how swiftly obits have to be reported, how subjects are chosen from the hundreds of notable deaths that happen each day.
This doc blends macabre wit with genuine, earnest enthusiasm for human stories.
As the doc demonstrates, editorial obit writers are responsible for cataloguing cultural memory. "They're history!" is a common, casual way of saying that someone has died, but the Times obit writers see themselves as telling the stories of the moments a person actually made history. In doing so, they essentially decide how history is remembered.
Of course, history is rarely fair. Margalit Fox, a senior writer for the Times obit desk, remarks that she's often asked why so few women and people of color appear in the handful of obits that the paper publishes every day. "Ask me again in a generation," she says—not to be glib, but simply because she recognizes that until the mid-20th century, the world's major events were orchestrated largely by white men.
Obit writers, like all great journalists, juggle the tricky task of presenting facts as they are, without injecting too much of their own morality. When the Times was tasked with penning the obit for the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the writers and editors couldn't speculate on whether they would have take on such a mission themselves—they simply had a story to tell.
Most papers, however—even ones as big as the Houston Chronicle, which my parents still read every day—don't approach obits with the same selectivity. My parents have continued reading obits all these years because it's meant they've learned more about their city, the people they meet in passing and then never see again, the acquaintances they've fallen out of touch with, the names they heard but couldn't place.
"It's really the one way a community acknowledges or says goodbye to somebody," my father says. "A lot of them are kind of the same—they say who their relatives were, where they went to church, where they worked. But here in Houston there are people now dying who were involved in the early days of NASA. We get obits for people who worked on the Gemini spacecraft or in mission control or who did electronics for the space shuttle."
"Obits are the behind-the-scenes stories that are often never going to be in the history books, but they are fascinating." —My Dad
My parents begin listing notable obits of recent years: the man who managed billionaire recluse Howard Hughes's estate and saw it through an infamous legal battle; the woman who administered my dad's FAA exam, approving his pilot's license, who had logged a whopping 30,000 hours of flying; one of the first women physicians in Houston, who earned her degree in the 1940s; a woman who told her family before her death that she wanted it made clear that Trump's election had killed her.
"One of the sad things of losing a daily family or community paper," my dad continues, "is that I don't know that anyone will ever look at obits in the future if they don't have a paper, if they just get their news off the internet."
When he says this, I realize most of the obits I read online are filtered through the social networks I'm already part of. Because I follow mostly writers with a books or art beat on Twitter, that means the great majority of obits in my feed are of art historians or art critics, major fiction writers or poets, composers, artists. I don't really get a holistic view of a physical community.
"A lot of the time people won't talk about their stories, and I'm sure that the vast majority of interesting things get washed away." —My Dad
The day I'm talking obits with my parents, they had just been to the funeral of the daughter of some friends from church. In fact, they'd only known of her death because of her obit a few days prior.
"It feels like a real privilege to be able to read other families' stories," my mom says.
"Obits are the behind-the-scenes stories that are often never going to be in the history books, but they are fascinating," my dad says. "Everybody's story, if you dug deep enough and if the obits were long enough, would be a fascinating story. A lot of the time people won't talk about their stories, and I'm sure that the vast majority of interesting things get washed away. But there are little gems buried in obits."
Obit is now in theaters. For more information, visit obitdoc.com.