Two years ago, The New York Times posted its first video obituary known as The Last Word. The subject, humorist and columnist Art Buchwald, had recorded an interview to be used at the time of his death.
“Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died,” the online presentation began. It went on to offer Buchwald’s last views on his life, and death, in a groundbreaking online approach.
Since then, the newspaper has posted three other videos after their subjects passed on. They included longtime Times photographer Dith Pran, legendary musician Odetta, and philanthropist Stewart Mott.
Web producers have also stockpiled dozens more and have many in the process of being produced.
“We have about 30 done and 10 in production,” says David Rummel, the Times senior producer for news and documentary. “There is editing and production and interviewing, and it takes time. You have to do a lot of research, get archival footage, acquire rights to things and go through our own video library.”
In each case, the newspaper has agreed to complete confidentiality for the video obit subjects, promising not to reveal their involvement until the time of death. All Rummel would say is the completed group includes one former president, a Nobel Prize winner, and a playwright.
The Dallas office of former President George W. Bush, who recently left office, told E&P he had not participated in a video. The offices of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter did not immediately respond to requests for information.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” Rummel said about approaching potential subjects with the sometimes sensitive topic of their obituaries. “Either they are receptive, or they are not. We have more willing to do it than not.”
With the recent string of celebrity deaths that included Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Walter Cronkite, speculation arose about whether any of them had recorded a ‘Last Word.’ None appeared.
“The best guarantee is if we do this, you will live a long time” Rummel jokes, noting that only four of the videos have been used, the last being Odetta’s in December. “There are people well into their 90’s we have done.”
Of the recent deaths, Rummel said the producers had thought about approaching Cronkite, who was 92 when he died, but decided against it. “By the time we were doing this, he was fairly deaf,” he explains. “We didn’t want people shouting at him.”
The only person who has declined and later died was William F. Buckley, Rummel says: “Knowing what I know now about him, he was probably not in good physical shape. I would have loved to get Buckley, that would have been fascinating.”
As for the others, Rummel admits the project is only for those who can handle thinking about death and want to have a say after they die about their life. “You have to really be in touch with your mortality,” he says. “But the attraction is you can have the last word.”