POV: Describe a typical home funeral for us.
Elizabeth Westrate: Usually when a family has a home funeral it involves keeping the body at home for up to three days. The family will care for the body, invite friends over, and design their own rituals for a church or for the home, for burial or cremation. The most important thing about home funerals is that the family does everything themselves, which gives family members an opportunity to be involved emotionally and creatively. It allows for the ceremony to reflect the personality of the deceased.
POV: Why not go the traditional route?
Westrate: I found, through my own experiences and in talking to people, that sometimes dealing with a death through a funeral home or mortuary can feel impersonal — almost like you are a guest at these events rather than a participant. At home, it’s a much more intimate experience and you can control the timing. Things aren’t scheduled as they often are in a funeral home, which is a business. Home funerals provide the opportunity to have a more organic grieving experience, on your own schedule, meeting your own needs and the needs of your family members when they arise.
The ceremonies we filmed were creative, colorful, and really beautiful. A lot of people told us that being invited to draw a picture, to help paint the casket or to write and read a poem at the service made them feel that they were contributing to rather than just attending the service. Feeling like you’ve contributed helps many people start to work through their grief. With this film we aren’t arguing that people should have home funerals, as opposed to mortuary funerals. The film is about choices — mourning doesn’t have to be a cookie cutter experience.
No matter what the choices are, no matter what the wishes are, a family should talk to each other. Often, when someone in your family dies, you find yourself in the position of having no idea what the deceased wanted. The stress of trying to figure that out while you’re grieving is terrible. “A Family Undertaking” is about trying to overcome that barrier, that one topic in our culture that we don’t talk about.
POV: How new is the home funeral trend?
Westrate: Home funerals aren’t anything new. Until the twentieth century in America, home funerals were the norm. People always cared for their dead at home. Around the time of the Civil War that started to change, when embalming developed and came into common practice. In most of the world people still care for their own dead — the modern American funeral experience is a relatively unique thing.
Today, families are starting to deal with death as though it is something to embrace as a milestone, not something to be hastily gotten over with. What’s interesting is how families are finding new ways to grieve by re-exploring old ways to grieve.
POV: How did you find participants for the film?
Westrate: At this point, the home funeral movement is a growing movement, still fairly small. There’s no centralized place to find people planning on having a home funeral. I worked with some home funeral organizations and a small number of death midwives, like Jerri Lyons. The death midwives help the family, much like a birth midwife does, to have a funeral at home. When a family approached the organizations and midwives to find out more about home funerals, the organization or midwife asked the family if they would be comfortable if I contacted them. I found most of the people that way or through word of mouth. On a few occasions people that had heard about the film called me and wanted to participate. Most people who have taken part in a home funeral really want other people to know about the option, and that allows them to work through their initial reservations.
POV: How did you go about filming such a private experience?
Westrate: In some cases, there were families that really wanted to be a part of the project but weren’t comfortable inviting a crew into their house during such an intimate time. In those cases we sent a very small digital camera and people made home videos and sent the tapes back to us.
Two families in particular, Dwight and Ann in California and the Carr family in South Dakota, very generously welcomed us in and we became a small part of that experience for them. We became very good friends. Dwight and Ann especially wanted other people to learn about home funerals. Ann was in the final stages of breast cancer and she hoped that through sharing in her death and home funeral experience, other people would learn about home death care and maybe consider it in the future.
POV: What was the most satisfying thing about making the film?
Westrate: People who’ve seen it tell me that they’ve approached their families afterwards and talked openly about death and their wishes. Though it’s a universal experience, death is something that’s very difficult for us to talk about, especially with the people we love — you don’t even want to think about it! Making the film helped me to talk to my own family about these issues, so for me this was a learning experience, too. The most satisfying thing for me is to hear that the film helped start that dialogue for people, that it created comfortable dialogue about death.
POV: What’s your advice for first time filmmakers?
Westrate: I would tell a first time filmmaker, don’t give up! When people tell you no, just keep going back. Many people told me no while I was working on this project — they didn’t understand why anybody would want to watch a film about home funerals. Eventually I started shooting and editing and I made a rough cut. Once people saw some footage, it was more compelling to them. Find a subject that you’re very passionate about and that you really believe in because there will be rejection. That’s just part of being an independent filmmaker. Ultimately, it’s an enormously rewarding experience.
POV: What are you working on now?
Westrate: I am making a film for a nonprofit called Heifer International, an aid organization that donates animals and agricultural products to communities around the world. I’m making a film honoring their sixtieth anniversary, so we’ll be filming in Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe in the next year.