Getting in the last word

M y obituary will almost certainly not merit the New York Times cutoff. Compared to the A List of human achievements and newsmakers, me, my life, and my steelfrogblog barely merits the mere thought of a raised eyebrow. Well, New York Times, maybe I just won’t die then; did you think about that? HA! Checkmate, Jim. Seriosuly, I don’t have a problem with missing the NYT cutoff; it will give something to shoot for as I age, aside from writing my own obituary that is. That’s just cheating.

Had you lined up the plots of the hundreds of the films I see this year and asked me to rank them, “documentary about obituary writing” would almost certainly find itself in the bottom 10 as level of interest goes. On an objective level, obituary writing seems formulaic, morbid, and riddled with wild exaggeration –much like Trump’s vision of America. But damned if this film wasn’t fascinating.

First off, you gotta love the deadline factor. I know what you’re thinking, “There are deadlines for obituaries?” Yes. Yes, there are. You don’t want to be ‘scooped,’ do ya? What if the Washington Post announces that death before you do? Well, won’t you feel stupid, right?

Second, you gotta love the verification. “Now, your father is dead, right?” I’m not making this up. You have to verify these things. And you have to respect the timetable. The obit has to be out by the early evening or you miss the news cycle. So helpful tip out there to all people thinking of dying: do so in the morning. Gives the Times all day to check the archives and do the math. If you die in the late afternoon, you’re screwed; what were you thinking, pal?

Third, you gotta make the cutoff. Queen Elizabeth, sure, might get 15,000 words and a front page. Belinda Carlisle … well, maybe 1,200 words and a teaser below the fold. Steel Frog? My family would have to lobby and bribe, unsuccessfully in both cases, for a 50 word buried obit – yes, I did that on purpose.

Fourth, fact check, fact check, fact check – “Look, I have no doubt you and your family believe your grandmother won the AL triple crown in 1947, but unless her name was Ted Williams, we have an issue.”

The Morgue is a place I would love to visit. No, not an actual morgue, but the repository of NYT information. It is a stuffy inner-building warehouse with 10,000 file drawers of articles, clippings, and photos to assist your obituary writing. The repository used to be staffed by 30 people. Now, just one guy and he has more idea than you about what the room contains, which is to say he’s up 10% to your 0%. The Morgue contains future obituaries, ones written in anticipation of death from colorful, volatile, personalities on the downside of their news generating curve. Obit showed us one of historical aviatrix Elinor Smith. Given her daredevil ways, Elinor’s pre-obit was written in the 1930s. Unfortunately for the Times, Elinor lasted among the living until 2010. The original obit writer had long since died in the interim.

Nobody ever wants to be an obituary writer; it’s not really a called profession. It’s like finding a natural second basemen – nobody ever goes pro in baseball dreaming of playing second base; it’s simply something that happens given how you fit in. The obituary pen is the sacred elephant burial ground of Times writers; it’s not that these are bad writers, they’re just not the cream of the staff and they’re almost certainly a little older than the rest. This facet drew me to Obit almost immediately. I, too, worked in a sacred elephant burial ground office place. There’s a different feel to an office where people don’t compete.

I often wonder if I’m an Obit writer in the making. I often review “dead” movies, and part of review writing is folding in required elements (not unlike obituary writing). Obituaries need not be personality-free, believe it or not; they just have to get the facts right and avoid the flowery euphemisms of death (e.g. “… was sent to the angels on a glittering cloud while trumpets welcomed Heaven’s new addition earlier this evening …”). Seriously, don’t say that shit. Of course, I’d much likelier phrase the other way: “Lifelong asshat and evil reptilian fiend Roger Ailes was sent directly to Hell today … thanks to a lifetime of intentional hateful division that promoted the dumbing down of an entire nation, constant supply of misleading or plainly false information in the cause of turning a democracy into a plutocracy, the scapegoating of the well-intentioned, often-innocent or certainly most frail people in society, and eventual advancement of several of the worst politicians the world has ever known (culminating in Donald Trump, the very worst of them all) all under the laughable tag “fair and balanced,” the soul-less corpse of what remained of Roger Ailes was stripped naked, humiliated and shoved down a lava river to the ninth circle of Hell, where he will never find peace, safety, or pleasure of any kind again.” See, I think mention of “lava river” and “ninth circle” might go too far, but the rest -being factual and verifiable- can stand.

I digress.  Elements, Jim, elements.  Oh, all right. Obit is a 2016 documentary about the process of writing obituaries for the New York Times. It is surprisingly entertaining and, given the subject matter, ironically full of life. It stars nobody you’ve ever heard of, nor will consider even a week after viewing, but you might remember their thoughts on the events surrounding the deaths of some notable people who shaped your life. A must-see for any writer over the age of fifty. Three stars out of four.

♪I’m all blocked up, got nothin’ to flow
Writin’ ‘bout a dead world record holder

Waiting for some inspiration to arrive
Goin’ to do some justice to one who ain’t alive
I was struck by facebook
Scrollin’ through my feed
I caught sight of something I just had to read
It’s a dead man’s notice
He won’t ask for more
Everybody’s pleading, “Can you write a little more?
Can you write some nice words?” we implore♫

Not Rated, 93 Minutes
D: Vanessa Gould
W: Everybody in the film
Genre: Judging the dead
Type of person most likely to enjoy this film: Writers
Type of person least likely to enjoy this film: Dreamers

♪ Parody inspired by “Dead Man’s Party”

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