In 1999, while researching a different project, I stumbled upon a website that described how people could care for their own dead at home. At the time, I was seeking subject matter for a film which was meant to be an irreverent look at bizarre modern death rituals: ashes shot into outer space on rocket ships, modern mummification, cryogenics — that type of thing.
Initially, reading about home funerals made me very uneasy. It called to mind images of Faulkner and the Old West, and it certainly was not the kind of story I had been looking for. But, I was intrigued. Why would anyone want to do this? I called Jerri Lyons, the “death midwife” from Final Passages, to find out more about her work. I admit that I expected Jerri to be eccentric, and not very convincing about this strange mission of hers. But after speaking for over an hour, and much to my surprise, I found a lot of what she said to be persuasive. Having recently lost my own grandfather, I couldn’t help imagining how the experience might have been different if my family and I had been aware of this option just a few months earlier. By the time I hung up the phone, my original idea for the documentary seemed superficial and glib, and I knew I had to make A Family Undertaking instead. I spent the next four years producing the film.
At one point during filming, a funeral salesman explained to me that a family’s motivation to spend thousands of dollars on a casket is the same as a bride’s who spends thousands on a dress that she knows she’ll wear only once. He presented this argument as justification for the great expense of a funeral. However, I thought it was a perfect illustration of how we may be losing sight of what is important.
When a death in the family occurs, most of us hand things over to strangers so that we can put the experience behind us as quickly and efficiently as possible. By doing so, I have come to understand, we miss an essential opportunity for intimacy and healing. While the financial benefit of home death care is significant, it quickly became clear to me that it not the most compelling reason that a family might consider this option.
In most of the world, home funerals have always been the norm, but most Americans have had no direct experience with caring for the dead. I feel that it is our culture’s lack of familiarity with death that has resulted in our fear of it. So, it seemed crucial to film these events unfolding, rather than simply feature family members describing their experiences after the fact. As I learned more, I decided that showing the bodies of the deceased was also very important, if only to keep the viewer’s imagination from filling in the blanks with grotesque and unrealistic images.
I did not know when I started this project if any families would be willing to share these experiences with me. I learned, though, that many people who have been through a home funeral are eager to tell their stories. Still, it was difficult to gain access during this private and emotional time. In order to reach out to families, I worked closely with the handful of home funeral organizations that exist across the United States, and also with the Vermont based Funeral Consumers Alliance.
As word spread about the film, several people mailed in home movies that they had filmed in the past. Others were willing to record their ceremonies for us, but were not comfortable having our crew involved. In these cases, I shipped them a small digital camera so that they could create their own videos for the documentary. Finally, we were incredibly fortunate to meet two special people, Ann Stuart in California and Bernard Carr in South Dakota, who invited us to film with them during the last months of their lives and through their home funerals.
As Nancy Poer says in the film, “Home funerals aren’t for everyone.” My goal for this film is not necessarily that after viewing it, everyone should choose to have a home funeral, but simply that people might better understand that choices exist. I also hope that A Family Undertaking will spark a dialogue within families that might lead to better communication about the issues surrounding the end of life.
As a first time filmmaker, the experience of making A Family Undertaking was challenging and incredibly rewarding. I will be forever grateful to all of the families that shared their stories.
Elizabeth Westrate, Producer/Director
Elizabeth Westrate is currently producing and directing a film for the humanitarian organization Heifer International. Previous producing credits include pieces for the Sundance Channel series Aftereffect, 24 Frame News, and Right Now! At the Sundance Film Festival. Westrate was the associate producer of the HBO production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which aired in 2002 in conjunction with V-Day, a global movement to end violence against girls and women. She was also the associate producer of Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents, an ITVS production that was broadcast on public television in 2000. Westrate earlier served as associate producer for the Simon & Goodman Picture Company, where she received a CableACE Award for Best Documentary Special for Heart of a Child.
Other credits include HBO’s 27th and Prospect: One Year in the Fight Against Drugs, American Experience's The Telephone, and, as post-production coordinator, Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud. Performing arts projects include The Paul Taylor Dance Company Repertory Preservation Project, for which Ms. Westrate was both associate producer and editor. Elizabeth Westrate has served in various production positions on many feature films, including Independence Day, The Basketball Diaries, and Jeffrey. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 1992, and is the owner of Five Spot Films, a documentary production company in New York City.