The last remaining archivist, Jeff Roth, in the morgue in Obit. (Kino Lorber)

Everybody dies, but not everybody makes it onto the obituary pages of the New York Times. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould’s documentary about the individuals who do rate a Times obit and the editors who write them is surprisingly lively and often touching.

After origami artist Eric Joisel, who appeared in Gould’s last film, Between the Folds, died at age 53, she wanted to preserve his legacy. The filmmaker notified many English-language news outlets about her friend’s death, but only the Times responded—and ran an obit. This led to Gould’s fascination with the “incredible human stories” in the obituaries section and to a new project.

Obit. goes behind the scenes at the paper, where we see the veteran obituaries editors at work, gathering news of the newly deceased, meeting to decide who to profile, working the phones to get the facts from bereaved relatives, and discussing their assignments. Interspersed among the work scenes are deskside interviews with the editors, as well as footage—some of it remarkable—of the obit subjects. They include aviatrix Elinor Smith, “the flying flapper of Freeport”; William P. Wilson, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s television consultant; John Fairfax, “the most interesting man in the world,” who crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean in a rowboat; and author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at age 46.

Former NYT obituaries writer Bruce Weber receives a lot of screen time as he composes Wilson’s obit and talks about previous assignments, as does the eloquent and amusing Margalit Fox, NYT obituaries senior writer. They and their colleagues discuss the art of creating a good memorial on a deadline, how much the “stigma” of being an obit writer has changed, and how they fall in love a little bit with their subjects and struggle to “make the dead live again,” as former obit writer Douglas Martin says, lamenting the fact that he’ll never get to meet the people he writes about.

Most of them have worked elsewhere at the paper before landing in the obits section and have a few years under their belts. As Weber says, being of a certain age and working in the department is fitting, because “We’ve all had loved ones die.” Several editors contemplate their own mortality and consider whether they’ll get an obit when they die. The writers also share some tips and tricks of the trade. Both Fox and William Grimes recall the obit that “killed” someone rather prematurely, and many decry the use of euphemisms such as “he passed.” (Chief pop music critic Jon Pareles immerses himself in the music of his subjects before he writes about them.) The personalities of the staffers stand out, never more so than during a visit to the “morgue,” where Jeff Roth presides over more than 100 years’ worth of archive materials. He’s a goofy but genial guide to the overstuffed files, and his enthusiasm for his job is contagious.

After watching this fascinating look beyond the pages and behind the scenes of the Times, those who don’t usually turn to the obituaries section may change their habits, and those who read it will have a better understanding of the work that goes into it.

Directed by Vanessa Gould
Released by Kino Lorber
USA. 95 min. Not rated