Reclaiming the End of Life: A Family Undertaking Reviewed


The best documentary of 2004 is not Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.

Until I stumbled upon A Family Undertaking (Detroit PBS, POV episode for Sunday, October 10, 2004), I had walked through life with blind assumptions about how to handle death. I always figured that an undertaker would take care of the arrangements, that I’d have to purchase (or rent) a coffin and that all visitations could only take place in a funeral home. I figured that the body would be embalmed. I figured these things because that’s all you ever hear about when it comes to funeral arrangements these days. I think we don’t give this subject much thought because we’re afraid to, and while we’ve avoided the issue, a major industry, with its own expensive way to do things, has quietly come in and monopolized death.

It didn’t used to be this way. Even into the first half of the twentieth century, dead relatives were kept in state on the beds they died on, surrounded by friends and family. Coffins were built and customized by loved ones, whose handling of the dead became part of the grieving process. Undertakers do offer a valuable service, especially to small families who cannot handle the preparations and the grief, but undertakers and funeral homes aren’t the only way to do things in this day and age. We just have come to think so. That’s the message of the American home funeral movement, the people profiled in Elizabeth Westrate’s documentary, A Family Undertaking.

A Family Undertaking is a hard hour to watch, and not just for a five minute segment showing a body being embalmed by a funeral home (though that segment is not one I’d recommend watching while eating). The documentary is impossible to look away from as it focuses on the couples and the families who have decided to have their funerals at home, their coffins built themselves, their bodies not embalmed.

Ms. Westrate doesn’t preach. Although she notes the considerable (and morbid) industry that has built up around North American death rituals, and the environmental problems associated with the embalming process, she lets her camera focus on the familes and the profound way they handle their profound grief. We see a family dealing with the death of a child, the siblings painting messages of love and sorrow on their sister’s cardboard coffin. We see a funeral ceremony conducted in the bedroom of a cancer victim. We visit Faith, South Dakota, where the patriarch of a ranching family supervises the construction (and branding) of his own coffin. We see the funeral that follows.

It’s difficult watching friends and family handle the death of loved ones during the home funeral experience. We cannot help but feel like voyeurs. I was as ready to cry as I would at my own family’s funerals. However, the documentary manages to show the cathartic release these ceremonies represent, and how much healthier they seem as part of the grieving process. Home funeral advocates argue that current funeral practises amount to abandoning family members with strangers. By keeping control of their loved ones’ death arrangements, they’re better able to say goodbye.

The grief expressed on screen is profound, but the sense is that it is ultimately healthy. It moved Erin and I incredibly, and it made us think about things we’d hardly even considered up to that point. Even two days later, I cannot get these images out of my head. All hallmarks of a great documentary.

As I mentioned, one of the things A Family Undertaking highlights is just how little Americans know about what they can or cannot do during the funeral process. The process is a varied patchwork across the United States and five states (including New York, Conneticut and Nebraska) ban families from caring for their dead loved ones (a prohibition the home funeral movement is fighting).

Typing in Canadian “home funeral movement” into Google yields few useful results. Obviously, it’s not a subject many people want to talk about. Further research will be required to see what are one’s funeral rights north of the Canadian-American border.



The borrowed image on the right is copyright Web Media Entertainment and is courtesy of this website.

Wonderfalls is another example of a program that I come upon after cancellation. Mind you, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to get introduced. Tim Minear (of :Angel: fame)’s new vehicle only managed to air four of its thirteen episodes before Fox pulled the plug. It’s a shame, because Fox killed what was one of the most promising shows this past season. Wonderfalls offered a quirkiness and a depth that was hard to find anywhere else.

The focuses on 24-year-old Jaye Tyler, an underachieving young woman living in Niagara Falls, NY. A sharp-witted university graduate with a Philosophy degree, she works as a clerk in a souvenir shop and lives in a trailer. Surrounded by successful parents and siblings, she has started to shut herself off from the world, slouching through a life of quiet sardonic cynicism.

This changes when a deformed wax lion in her souvenir shop starts talking to her, warning her not to refund the money of a rude customer. Alarmed, Jaye refunds the money anyway, and the customer walks out of the store, only to have her purse snatched. Guided by the wax lion and other talking inanimate objects around her, Jaye is forced to follow the rude customer, and is led through a series of improbable connectins that leads to a date from hell, an emergency tracheotomy and a family revelation. Poor Jaye is left to wonder: is she crazy, or has she been put on a mission?

Wonderfalls succeeds on the strength of lead actress Caroline Dhavernas. Caroline’s demeanour, her “don’t mess with me” look, transforms well into hilarous alarm over her (quite understandable) fear that she’s going crazy. Jaye’s life is not normal. Her family seems too good to be true, but at the same time they are wrapped up in their own neuroses. Her older sister is a lesbian and her mother doesn’t know. Her father loves her but is inept at showing it. Jaye just can’t stand her family but, deep down, she cares. She refuses to connect with people but, deep down, she’s willing to help — even if she’s primarily motivated by stuffed animals sending her messages (if she refuses to listen, they start to sing). Caroline is able to convey the depth of her character through looks, facial quirks, her tone of voice and more. Caroline herself was born in Montreal and used a voice coach to remove all traces of her Quebec accent and it’s a testament to her skills that I didn’t know this until I looked it up on the Internet.

Caroline is complemented by writers and directors who strive to make Jaye’s life as quirky as possible. The presence of Tim Minear ensures that the dialogue sparks. Wonderfalls feels as though the world is about to tip over onto its head; there is a bitterness and sadness beneath Jaye’s cool demeanour, but in the end good things manage to happen, and the result is nicely bittersweet.

I also get a chuckle over the fact that while the story is set in Niagara Falls, NY, the series is obviously filmed in Niagara Falls, ON. Anybody who has been on the Canadian side of the falls will recognize locations that simply aren’t available on the American side. Still, the setting is no accident. I’ve talked about the superficial feel of the tourist town, and the quiet desperation the natural beauty and the bustle masks — moreso on the American side, I think. Tim Minear and his crew knew the characterization they wanted to capture, right down to where it lived. Indeed, if anything, more could have been made with the seedier sides of the setting.

They might have explored that further if they got a chance, but whatever the case, the first two episodes of Wonderfalls are remarkable and different and well worth watching. It is a shame I didn’t follow this series when it first came out, although it’s unlikely that my lonely viewing figure would have made much difference. I’ll make up for that mistake now.

The thirteen episodes of Wonderfalls are being shown Mondays at 9 p.m. on Vision TV. The DVD release of the series is scheduled for early January 2005.

Erin recommended Wonderfalls after watching the pilot and seeing Caroline Dhavernas’ performance as an excellent model around which to base the character of Perpetua Collins in The Night Girl. She was right. Caroline’s Jaye perfectly encompasses the sardonic Alice through-the-looking-glass feel that I want to achieve for Perpetua. That’s another reason I’ll be watching the rest of this series… as if I needed it.

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