Encore Broadcast Date: August 14, 2007
PBS Premiere: August 3, 2004
What is old is often new again. Most funerals today are part of a multimillion-dollar industry run by professionals. This increased reliance on mortuaries has alienated Americans from life's only inevitability death. A Family Undertaking explores the growing home funeral movement by following several families in their most intimate moments as they reclaim the end of life, forgoing a typical mortuary funeral to care for their loved ones at home. Far from being a radical innovation, keeping funeral rites in the family or among friends is exactly how death was handled for most of pre-20th century America.
Prior to the Civil War, caring for and preparing the dead for burial on family farms or in local cemeteries was both a domestic skill and a family responsibility. The trauma of the Civil War created the need for a new profession: that of undertaker. 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 event, sanitized and institutionalized. Americans literally lost touch with death. Death also became more expensive. 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.
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 us to individuals like the Carr family of South Dakota, preparing for the death of 90-year-old family patriarch Bernard, and Anne Stuart and Dwight Caswell of California, preparing for the end of Anne's struggle with terminal cancer. Through their stories we see 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. Their home funerals are remarkable documents of death made intimate, meaningful, and even joyful.
An Independent Television Service (ITVS) co-presentation.
A Family Undertaking (60 min.)
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August 3, 2004
An intimate and fascinating film.”
— Aaron Barnhart
Kansas City Star