Here's what it's like to write obituaries for the New York Times
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Looking back, 2016 was a tumultuous year packed with twists and turns — Donald Trump was elected US President, the UK voted to leave the EU and Brangelina split up — yet, sometimes, it was the demise of our favourite celebrities which sparked the most conversation.
The year was personified as a grim reaper, and at the times, it felt like Death was picking guests for the most entertaining dinner party of all time; the passing of Bowie, Prince, and George Michael, the lattermost on Christmas Day, sent shock waves across the globe, as their obituaries were circulated online and in news bulletins.
Though quickly published, obituaries for superstars are painstakingly put together, often before they've died. Bruce Weber spent eight years creating written legacies for the dead on the infamous obit desk at the New York Times, and is one of the main subjects in the first documentary to look at editorial obituaries: Obit, directed by Vanessa Gould.
After leaving the paper last August, Bruce is now teaching a journalism class at New York University, whilst writing a biography on one of his obituary subjects, novelist E.L. Doctorow.
Here, he discusses what it's like to make a living writing about death, and whether 2016 was a particularly precarious year to be a celebrity:
It must be very difficult to talk to families when they’re grieving. Were there people who didn’t want to talk to you?
There were occasionally families that didn't want to talk. Generally speaking, these were less sophisticated people who were suspicious of media in general and didn't understand the idea of an obituary in particular. Most times, families were happy to acknowledge the fact that The New York Times wanted to take notice of their loved one, and in their grief, they were, as anyone is, eager to talk about the person they'd lost.
What’s the research process with writing obituaries? How long do they take to write?
Obituaries, like any news stories, take until deadline to write, whenever the deadline happens be. It can be a couple of hours or a few days. You do the research — online, in clips, in books, in interviews — based on how distant the deadline is.
In the case of advance obituaries, which don't have a deadline, you have more leisure to research your subject, and the subjects usually require more leisure — advance obituaries are pretty much for people whose lives have been especially noteworthy and celebrated or complex and you need more time get a handle on the arc of their lives in order to write well about them.
What do you think makes a good obituary?
A good obituary is one that explains and illustrates the consequential nature of the life that has ended and allows the people who knew the subject to recognise the person they lost.
How are advance obituaries chosen? Is there a formula?
The subjects of advances pretty much suggest themselves — people with highly exceptional achievement and/or celebrity who have aged largely beyond their most productive years or who are known to be at risk or ailing. There’s no formula — there are too many people who qualify in too many fields for that — but they are mostly over 75 with their life's work, or the lion's share of it, pretty much behind them.
Do you think social media has affected writing obituaries?
That's an interesting question. I'm not sure social media has affected the substance of obituaries, but it certainly has increased the demand for them, and it has put pressure on obit writers to produce the goods more quickly.
On the other hand, it has also provided another research tool for writers, who can search Facebook, Twitter, etc., for sources. I've often found family members of the dead that way.
Do you think 2016 was unusual for celebrity deaths? If so, why? If not, why does it seem like it was different?
I don't think 2016 was unusual for celebrity deaths. Dozens of famous people die every year. But it did happens in 2016 that a lot of widely known pop culture figures — David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, etc. — were among those who died, and the people were important revered in the early lives of many journalists and their readers/viewers. There was a lot of nostalgia involved in the obituaries of 2016.
Did the most prominent deaths from 2016 have advances?
Some yes, some no. Prince, no, Bowie I don't think so. Frey, no. Edward Albee, Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, and Leonard Cohen all had advances.
What factors make somebody’s death newsworthy?
If the person's life was newsworthy — with an impact on historical events, culture, scientific achievement, political currents, etc., or manifesting a singer achievement — then that life certainly deserves consideration for a Times obit. Also if the person was just consequentially interesting or eccentric — the last guy in New York to repair typewriters, for instance - then that might qualify, to.
While you were working at the New York Times, which death shocked the obits desk most?
That's an easy one — the death of our colleague, David Carr, who, though he had been ill, died without warning in the newsroom one evening in February 2015. Other shocking ones were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tim Russert, Robin Williams and David Foster Wallace, though we had no institutional connection them so their deaths were less personally felt.
Which obit has been most memorable to write? Which has been most difficult?
I think my personal favorite, because I'm a big baseball fan and because he was such an entertaining and admirable character, was Yogi Berra. Readers seemed to like that one, too.
The most difficult obits to write are those about people whose work involves arcane subjects — mathematics, philosophy etc. — about which I know little. Not only do you have to find a way to understand the nature of their work, you have to be able to explain it in lay terms to readers so that they can understand it, too. It usually took me a few days and involved finding experts in the field who had enough patience to talk me through the complexities and help me translate them into readable English.
What's the most surreal thing that’s happened to you while writing obituaries?
I'm not sure any of my experiences would qualify as surreal, but I did once try and reach Jack Nicholson to see if he would be interested in being interviewed for his advance obituary, and his agent screamed at me for five minutes as if I'd just asked permission to kill him myself.
Have any celebrities asked to see their advances? If so, who?
I'm sure they have, but none that I know of. It happens more frequently that some rich businessman with an inflated sense of his own importance has a secretary call The Times's obits desk to say her boss is planning to be in New York City and would like to schedule an interview for the file we must be keeping on him.
It’s a terribly morbid question; but what would you like included in your own obit?
I can't really answer that one. To be honest, I don't know that I'll have an obituary, and if I do, by the time it runs I won't care.
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