Bernard Carr poses with his own casket, which was built by his grandson in Prairie City, South Dakota.
What is old is often new again. Elizabeth Westrate’s A Family Undertaking uncovers a growing social trend: the home funeral movement. More often, Americans are choosing to do it themselves when it comes to burying loved ones and easing their own grief. Far from being a radical innovation, however, keeping funeral rites in the family or among friends is exactly how death was handled for most of pre-twentieth century America.
It was the Civil War and the great slaughter of soldiers on far-flung battlefields that interrupted the American custom of home funerals. Until then, caring for and preparing the dead for burial on family farms or in local cemeteries was both a domestic skill and a family responsibility. When facing the trauma of the Civil War, American communities wanted to bring their dead home to remember and honor them. That created the need to preserve the body for shipment and a demand for repairing or disguising the mutilations of war as much as possible. From that grew a new profession: the undertaker.
A Family Undertaking shows that the advent of the undertaker marked a sharp and negative shift in American attitudes toward death. For many, the death of a loved one became an alienating and frightening event. Ultimately, it became sanitized and institutionalized. Americans literally lost touch with death. Death also became more expensive. Increased reliance on morticians and funeral directors in the twentieth century evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry.
In the view of many who advocate and practice home funerals, it is an industry built at least in part by money spent on unneeded embalming procedures and heavily marketed ceremonial trappings. Today, an average funeral home memorial and interment costs as much as $7,000 —a burdensome expense many families feel pressured to meet in the name of honoring their dead.
But A Family Undertaking makes clear that the heart of the home funeral movement is the desire to rescue funerals from the impersonality of a mass-market industry, and to reshape them according to personal beliefs or family and community traditions. The film introduces home funeral guides and advocates, such as Nancy Poer, Jerri Lyons, and Lisa Carlson of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, and Beth Knox, whose own experience with the accidental death of her seven-year-old daughter taught her the healing power of keeping the deceased close to the family instead of handing them off to strangers.
These guides explain that “hands-on” care for the dead by family members, including children, can aid in grieving, bring a sense of fulfillment, and help loved ones to grasp the reality of a death. They also point out that in most climates, embalming is not necesssary for reasons of health or safety. They describe how family members or friends can prepare the dead for memorial and for burial or cremation, naturally and with simple loving care. By contrast, A Family Undertaking visits the annual Funeral Industry Convention, where the funeral “experience” is positioned for marketplace success.
Most powerfully, the film introduces a few of the individuals who are taking control of loved ones’ —and in some cases their own —funeral rites. Anne Stuart and Dwight Caswell of California plan a home funeral for Anne, who knows she has terminal cancer and who makes the choice to keep the funeral in the house. “We’ve got to have this clear in everybody’s minds so that they don’t fall apart,” she explains. When Anne dies at home, A Family Undertaking is able to show how preparing Anne’s body becomes an occasion for reassurance and closeness among her friends and family.
But it is the experience of the Carr family of South Dakota that most dramatically frames the documentary. The whole family —not long after the death and home funeral of Bernard Carr’s wife Lola —is preparing for the death of the 90-year-old family partriarch himself. A homemade casket is built by the men in the family, and is decorated by Bernard, who burns his personal cattle brand in to the wood. The Carrs have many such touching moments —of humor, reminiscence, love, sadness —in what turns out to be the last year of the old man’s life. Because the Carrs are a ranching family, there is no question that Bernard will be buried on the land, beside Lola and his forebearers. In fact, Bernard Carr dies during the filming of A Family Undertaking, and the family’s home funeral is a remarkable document of death made intimate, meaningful, and even joyful.
“The home funeral movement challenges us to re-examine our attitudes toward death,” says director and producer Elizabeth Westrate. “We will all face death sooner or later; it’s one of life’s most defining moments, yet it’s the one we typically prepare for least. I wanted to explore this movement and its growing impact on our culture of denial.”