By Steven G. Kellman
The best alternative to an expensive, impersonal funeral is survival. That is not always possible, but one can still choose to exit this world without a stranger's homily or an embalmer's surgery. Director Elizabeth Westrate examines a quiet rebellion against the American mortuary industry, a return to customs of the 19th century, when families disposed of the dead on their own.
When the townsfolk in St. Petersburg, Missouri mistakenly believe that Tom Sawyer drowned in the Mississippi, the boy spies on his own obsequies. Most of us are in no condition to appreciate the ceremonies marking our departures. Too late to help the dead, funerals are designed to comfort and encourage the living. But kitschy caskets, cadaveric cosmetics, bombastic rituals, and grandiose tombstones can burden the bereaved with exorbitant expenses and a feeling that a loved one was stolen twice - first by death and then by a professional who owns a hearse. A Family Undertaking, which KLRN-TV will broadcast August 3 at 10 p.m., on Channel 9 and Cable Channel 10, as part of P.O.V., the PBS series of nonfiction films, looks at the home funeral movement through the experiences of families in various regions of the United States.
The movement is said to be growing, though there are fewer than a half-dozen "death midwives," all of them interviewed on camera. One, Jerri Lyons, is shown instructing workshop participants in how to lift a corpse and the uses of diapers and dry ice. Another, Beth Knox, recalls how, after her 7-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident, she refused to release the body to the morgue. She instead brought it home, for family and friends to bid farewell in their own ways. "It is a transforming experience," says Dwight Caswell about the
Two of the death midwives emphasize that home funerals are not for everyone, that they are labor intensive and violate laws in a few states. But Westrate's sympathies are clearly with those who resist the pressure to sterilize and commercialize death. Her film includes scenes from a funeral industry convention in Florida, in which vendors display the latest in urns, monuments, and mausoleums, and morticians suggest strategies for separating mourners from their money. The average institutionalized funeral is said to cost $5,000-6,000 - money often spent when vulnerable consumers are least likely to make rational decisions. The film visits a casket factory and an embalming session, in which someone's loved one is eviscerated and pickled prior to public display. A graphic record of American burial rites, Family Undertaking is an easy film to watch, except for those who expect to die. •
A Family Undertaking is scheduled to air during KLRN's pledge drive, which may delay air time. Check the station schedule to confirm, at www.klrn.org.