POV: What was the role of home video footage in the film? How did it provide a unique challenge for you as a director, and how was it integrated into the overall narrative flow of the film in editing?
Elizabeth Westrate: The biggest challenge that I faced while making A Family Undertaking was gaining access to home funerals as they were unfolding. These events were intensely private, and while most of the families that I spoke to supported the project, I understood and respected the fact that many did not feel comfortable inviting a film crew into their homes during such an emotional time. Logistically, it was also impossible to predict when and where a home funeral would take place, and because we were shooting all over the country, we could not be sure our film crew would be able to reach the location before the ceremony had ended.
Our solution was to purchase a small digital video camera and make it available to people who were expecting a death in the family, and were also interested in participating in the film. The home videos were a crucial part of this project, and I’m so grateful to the families that shared them with me.
Jerri Lyons and Mark Hill of Final Passages were extremely helpful in coordinating the use of the camera in California. Other families used their own personal video cameras and then sent the tapes to me. In a couple of cases, families had recorded home movies for their own use, years before hearing about my project.
One goal of mine was to show the diversity of people who are choosing home death care, and the variety of footage that we received was very helpful in this regard. Of course, there were challenges. A common problem with home movies is that they are not recorded with editing in mind, so there were very few close-ups or medium shots for us to work with. This lead to some difficulty in creating scenes, because when you show an event unfolding entirely in wide shot, it can leave the viewer with a sense of remoteness or distance. That certainly wouldn’t have been an accurate reflection of the atmosphere in the homes at the time of filming. Also, since we were not able to interview family members before or during the event, it was difficult to give a sense of who they were. So, we tried to include as many personal details as possible from the home movies to provide a glimpse into their lives. Luckily, I was working with an incredibly talented editor, Melissa Neidich, and she patiently shaped the hours and hours of footage until these vignettes emerged.
In terms of structuring A Family Undertaking, we tried many different ways of including the home movies. In the end, we found that it worked best to include them during the more explanatory portion of the film, and to save the stories of Bernard Carr and Anne Stuart (which were shot by Director of Photography Scott Sinkler) until the very end. When we screened versions of the film that included these emotionally-charged scenes any earlier, people seemed too drained afterward to really focus on new information. So, we decided to utilize the imagery from the home movies to help illustrate the commentary of our experts, and slowly build up to the more detailed stories. We worked very hard to create an emotional arc and were careful to include short breaks in between more intense scenes in the hope that viewers would not feel overwhelmed.
POV: We see images of death every day in entertainment and on the daily news, but the personal face of death is often hidden and private. How did you determine how visually detailed and frank A Family Undertaking should be in portraying death and dying? Was there a message in your choice?
Westrate: Because of my own experience in learning about the subject, I felt it was very important to show real images of death. When I first heard about home funerals, I thought it was a fascinating idea, but to be perfectly honest, it was pretty unappealing to me personally. It wasn’t until I saw some still photos of home funerals that I could imagine wanting to do this for someone that I love. Seeing pictures of people who had died was not as frightening as I imagined it would be, and I actually found some of the photos to be quite beautiful. My main motivation for including so many clear images of the dead in “A Family Undertaking” was to try and remove some of the mystery that surrounds our death rituals, so that people might feel more comfortable participating in their own family ceremonies.
The decision to use home funeral footage was an easy one, but the embalming scene was more complicated. On one hand, we wanted to show what really happens during the procedure, since very few people are aware of what goes on behind the closed doors of a funeral home. On the other hand, we didn’t want the viewer to feel assaulted, or turn off the television before the program was over. Also, Melissa Neidich and I had been screening endless hours of footage and had grown quite used to seeing images of bodies and funerals, and I was concerned that our comfort level with the material might be much higher than that of the general public. So, we cut a few different versions of this scene and held test screenings to see how people would react. The segment that is in the film is much less graphic than the one we started out with, but many people still find it difficult to watch. The truth is, the footage that we included is not nearly as explicit as what you see on the reality shows that are set in hospitals, or on dramas like E.R.. But I think it’s partly the contrast between the gentler, more intimate home funeral scenes that make the footage seem severe. For this reason, we made sure that the deceased person’s identity was not revealed in any of the images.