Tyler Cowen interviews Margalit Fox, the lead obituary writer for the NYTimes.
The criterion we look for, if we had to pick a single question that can be asked of every applicant at our gates, is: Did he or she change the culture?
Since death is a lagging indicator of cultural influence, it's reassuring but also depressing that we're now starting to see a shift away from obits for mostly white men.
FOX: No. But remember, think about what an obit is. It is not only the most narrative genre in the paper; it is the most retrospective. We are writing about the movers and shakers who made our world. I think of obit writing as the act of looking through a sliding window onto the past, a kind of window that slides back along the rails of time.
When I first started the job in 2004, we were writing overwhelmingly about the people on either side of World War II. We edged up into the Cold War. We’re now writing about Vietnam and the civil rights era.
And no matter how we feel about it in light of modern sensibilities, the stark reality of our world is, pretty much the only people who were allowed to be actors on the world stage in the 1940s, ’50s, were overwhelmingly white men.
I’m happy to say that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this job, as that window has slid up into the civil rights era and even the women’s movement, that page of ours has started to diversify.
One would imagine it's more efficient to pre-write obits for famous people, especially those who are veering closer to death, and indeed that's the case (with the exception of maybe Keith Richards, it's unlikely to be wasted work):
It is indeed the case that obits for many of these major historical figures — presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, old-time silver screen stars — those are indeed written in advance.
Things happen. Rockers OD. Planes go down. Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.
We had similar pre-written obits at Amazon back when there was a larger human editorial team there. Editors would assign obits for famous authors, musicians, and filmmakers/actors who were still alive but on the far side of the age curve. This batch of obits was referred to, with all due affection, as the ghoul pool.
It strikes me as a useful exercise, if you can get over the usual morbid associations around death in the West, to write an obituary for yourself and update it once a year, almost like maintaining a resume or LinkedIn profile.