Tomorrow night, PBS stations will re-air the Frontline documentary, The Undertaking, which takes viewers behind the scenes and into the lives of real life funeral directors (check your local listings for times and channels).
The Undertaking focuses on Lynch & Sons Funeral Homes in Clawson and Milford, Michigan.
The documentary paints a powerful portrayal of the deep and profound commitment funeral service has for the families it serves.
What makes The Undertaking particularly poignant is seeing the funeral planning process through the eyes of grieving families. Through the experiences of the families featured in the documentary, viewers learn about the value of funerals and the tender ways that funeral directors care for the dying, the dead and the bereaved.
The documentary first aired in 2007. It is a moving and very interesting program.
In an interview on the PBS website with producers Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, they discussed how they became interested in the topic, logistical challenges of filming in a funeral home, how the documentary changed over the course of filming, and the meaning and purpose in the rituals of mourning and grief.
Ms. O’Conner commented on some of the difficulties of filming families that are experiencing death.
Often, we were not able to meet with families prior to a death because most people don’t come to a funeral home until someone has already passed away. But in nearly every situation, it was an odd and difficult task — similar to what the Lynches face in their work — to ask people to make decisions about relatively mundane and practical matters at precisely the time they were facing profound matters of death and grief.
By far the biggest challenge was the emotional one. During the course of production, over 20 people that I had gotten to know passed away, often unexpectedly. Some others, or their families, decided not to take part, or in some cases were so ill that it would have been inappropriate to film them. And spending so much time talking with people who were facing their own immediate deaths was unsettling and disturbing. Without a doubt, it forced us to face our own mortality more directly, and it ended up being much more difficult than we imagined or expected.
Ms. Navasky said this about what she hopes viewers take away from The Undertaking:
We hope that it makes people less afraid to think about and talk about death. Perhaps, in some small way, it will inspire people to confront their own mortality and discuss it with their friends and families. The experience made both of us think harder about what’s ahead. Perhaps it made us a little less afraid.
This was the last question in the Q&A with the producers: And how might you envision your own funerals after making this film?
M.N.: I had been pretty sure I wanted to be cremated; now I’m much more open to burial, though I think I will likely leave it to my family to decide. What has become more important to me, however, is to have a place for my family to go after I die. I am researching whether I could be buried on land that my mother and father own. I’d like to begin to create a sort of family burial place.
K.O.: With a name like O’Connor, I’d seen my fair share of open caskets and formal funerals, but I wasn’t convinced that I’d want one for myself. But now, a viewing, whether private or public, is something that I do believe is important. I’ve decided I want to be buried, not cremated, and want family and friends to lower me into the ground and shovel the dirt on me. I think everyone on our crew ended up re-evaluating what they’re going to do after death — for themselves and for their families.
If you can’t make the time to watch The Undertaking on television, watch the program on PBS Online.