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Helping to build a more just world.
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Committed to raising public awareness.
>> NARRATOR: Thomas Lynch is a writer and a poet.
>> "They die around the clock here without apparent preference for a day or the week.
There is no clear favorite in the way of seasons."
>> He's also the funeral director in a small town in central Michigan.
>> A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.
>> Lynch's award-winning book, "The Undertaking," is a portrait of a life spent in the presence of the dead.
>> So much of what we do is held up to ridicule, but it's just how you blur your eyes, whether you want to see the silliness of what we humans do when someone dies, or if you look at it carefully and see in it something deeply sublime.
>> Tonight on Frontline, behind the scenes at a funeral home as an undertaker and his family care for both the living and the dead.
>> "Every year, I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.
Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned.
I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes.
I have a sideline in headstones and monuments.
I do flowers on commission.
Apart from the tangibles, I sell the use of my building-- 11,000 square feet furnished and fixtured with an abundance of pastel and chair rail and crown moldings.
The whole lash-up is mortgaged and re-mortgaged well into the next century.
My rolling stock includes a hearse, two Fleetwoods and a minivan with darkened windows our price list calls a service vehicle and everyone in town calls the "Dead Wagon."
I am the only undertaker in this town.
I have a corner on the market."
I think we have, in some ways, become estranged about death and the dead.
We're among the first couple generations for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional.
We saw people start organizing sort of these commemorative events to which everyone was invited but the dead guy.
And I see that as probably not good news for the culture at large.
Up until a couple generations ago, humans dealt with death by dealing with their dead, so that the way we processed mortality was by processing from one place to the other, and both the dead and the living have some distance to go when someone we love dies.
( piano music in background ) >> Well, my father was a funeral director.
Two of my brothers and I are funeral directors.
Our brother-in-law is a funeral director.
Five of our nieces and nephews are funeral directors.
And my son, Paddy, is entering mortuary school in the next few months.
>> I assist him in any way he needs me-- getting cars lined up, helping him in church, directing people here in the funeral home, setting up flowers, helping to dress and casket bodies, and really just sort of a go-fer.
My family is one of the largest family-owned and operated funeral homes in the state of Michigan; in the U.S., for that matter.
>> Good morning.
Thank you for coming to commemorate the life of Bob.
>> The way I hear it put is that "Your dad works with dead people."
And I always knew it to be quite the opposite to that, that my dad worked with living people.
>> We are the first ones to respond and we are the last ones to leave.
We are there from the beginning of the death process to the end.
( church bells ringing ) >> "Our thing-- who we are, what we do-- has always been about death and dying and grief and bereavement.
We traffic in leave-takings, good-byes, final respects.
It's an odd arithmetic-- a kind of family farm, working the back 40 of the emotional register, our livelihoods depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness and lawyers on crime and clergy on the fear of God."
(telephone ringing) >> Lynch and Sons.
Rachel Fowler speaking.
Is this the spinal column?
>> We'd like to order very much a... more of a casket scarf, rather than a casket spray.
So, an abbreviated piece as we've ordered in the past.
And they'd like to use red and white carnations and include a lot of greens and different types of leaves and things.
Make it very masculine.
You'll see some of the caskets will have a different stain to them.
A lot of times with the poplar caskets... >> My mother had a little stroke about a month ago and, of course, those things make you think more about what is going to happen, and how you're going to arrange it, so I began to think more seriously about it.
>> ...something like the pieta copper and something like the Newport stainless steel casket... >> She doesn't want water to be inside her casket.
So, if she's buried in the ground and, you know, it's a wet season of the year, she wants to stay dry.
She wanted a metal casket, and she has always talked about having it sealed and having the vault.
And these are things, you know, that I do know that she wants.
>> Underneath this here is an actual gasket here, and it locks with a key.
>> So, it seals?
>> It will seal, yeah.
And it does, it provides protection.
I could jot that down and we could always make changes to it.
>> Yes, we can always change it.
>> Of course, of course.
>> Why don't you do that.
I would like that, I think.
>> For her that would be nice, I think.
>> And that shows virtually every place that it could be done.
>> We were thinking horizontal, though.
>> That one.
>> It can go right across the top.
>> Right across this bar.
>> That'd be beautiful, Bob.
>> Because people can read it better.
>> Well, especially in the winter, you know?
If it's down at the bottom and we get one of our Michigan snowfalls, you know, it could be covered.
The name could be covered when it's way down low like that.
>> I saw so many times when death would occur and no plans had been made.
And we discussed it from time to time, and finally decided on what we wanted.
>> ...and show you the draft of the obituary for both you and Jean.
Yours would read this way: "Robert Kelly was born on March the 10th, 1922, in El Reno, Oklahoma.
He was the fifth of six children..." >> I know exactly what they're going to do-- one visitation, a Mass, a cremation, burial, side by side.
>> "...discharged in 1946, and that same year married Jean Marie Larsen.
Mr. Kelly has been a..." >> Once the decision was made and we had that... we knew it was taken care of, that our sons would not have to sit and answer all those questions, we felt better.
We felt relieved.
It was just so complete, totally out of our hands, doing what we wanted.
It'll be "Kelly" across there.
>> Let me ask you first, Anthony, do you... is Anthony his middle name?
>> He's Anthony John.
>> Anthony John.
>> Anthony John.
And I'm spelling your last name V-E-double-R-I-N-O.
>> Yeah, that's correct.
>> Is he a junior or is he a second or... >> He's not a technical... yeah, he's himself.
>> He's one of a kind.
>> He has no middle name.
So, that makes him not a junior.
>> And his date of birth is November the... >> 18th.
>> Two thousand and... >> Four.
>> Tim told me that you were a good friend of Father Meagher.
Am I... do I have that right?
>> Yeah, Father Tom, yeah.
>> Is he aware of what's going on with you guys?
>> Mm-hmm, he actually... he spoke to my mom this morning.
So, he hears, you know, there's always that social connection, one way or another, but he said to my mom, "I heard that the baby's not doing so well," and he wanted... he said, you know, "Keep me informed."
>> Yeah, talk to Father Tom about this, but my guess is he's going to encourage you to bring your family and friends and your boy into church.
And then... then the other question would be whether, after the Mass you would plan on having a burial or a cremation.
And I think a lot of people... you know, we tend to think about these as sort of like options like any other option, until it comes right down to these difficult decisions, and then we say, "What is right for our boy?"
>> It's been... we've been able to talk about a lot of things and make some, you know, good decisions together on a lot of, you know, on everything.
But this one's been... we've talked about and we both have similar feelings on different ways, but I don't know if it's because we're just not... it's not, you know... it's just hard to finalize that decision.
>> It hasn't happened.
>> And you needn't, you needn't.
>> You know, so.... >> And there again you'll want to look to your son to guide you through this.
When the time comes, you'll know what to do, I promise you.
You'll know what to do.
>> This is Anthony, our son, who is 24 months old.
And he is not a baby who communicates in any sort of normal, expected way.
>> He doesn't see, he doesn't make noises or cry unless he's having seizures.
But he just has a... this just overwhelming presence for us, and I know he feels...
I know that he feels loved.
And he's just such a big person, you know, in this small, broken body, so...
Some folks in my family, when he was going through some of the harder times, well, why... we still get the question, "Well, why isn't he... why isn't he eating?"
And my answer is, "Because he's dying."
You know, and... because he's dying.
>> He was born early, at almost 32 weeks.
And they weren't sure why he came premature, because our pregnancy was very normal, but they were sure that he had many severe problems and that his prognosis itself was really bleak.
We knew he had major heart problems, we knew he had major issues with his brain.
And at 18 months, we had a diagnosis, which was a really rare genetic syndrome called C.F.C.
It's... it's such a... it seems so sinister when you're talking about a child dying.
You know, it just seems wrong.
And so you want to... people feel more comfortable remaining hopeful.
"Oh, well, he just might get better," or "you know, maybe this new medicine will work," or "Maybe when he turns two."
There's always, like, this hopeful future and we could... we would a lot of times have to say those... speak that with other people and then come home and feel... feel different, feel like that's really what wasn't going on.
>> We talked a little bit last time... last week about what it might look like if Anthony continues this decline.
>> So, it would be where he's very dusky, where his hands and his arms become very dark and discolored and cold... >> When we're... when we're planning ahead, it might even be in some ways a survival mechanism because for us it gives us, like, steps and procedures of how to do something.
I don't think we can really imagine how we'll feel when he's gone.
I've spent two years with a very sick baby, who from his birth has had significant problems and whose prognosis has never been bright.
And every time we found something else out from the doctors, it was always, like, one more thing that was worse.
And so even having that whole experience, when I sit and think about the day waking up when he's gone, I can't...
I can't prepare for that completely, you know?
But it gives us steps, things, I guess, traditions or something that we follow that maybe will help us survive in finding a way to honor him.
There you go.
You're all right.
You're all right.
You're all right.
Can you hear your mom?
Can you hear your mom?
>> "Watching my parents, I watched the meaning change of what it is that undertakers do: from something done with the dead to something done for the living, to something done by the living, every one of us.
Thus, undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather and the blinding dark.
It is the voice we give to wonderment, to pain, to love and desire, anger and outrage; the words that we shape into song and prayer.
Which undertaking is it then that does not seek to make some sense of life and living, dying and the dead?"
>> Hi, Anne.
>> Tom Lynch is here.
>> Oh, hello.
>> I'm Tom.
Nice to meet you.
>> Nice to meet you.
This is your aunt?
>> This is my aunt.
>> Is that Mrs. Leonard?
Or Ms. Leonard?
>> Ms. Leonard.
>> I'm Tom Lynch.
I'm pleased to meet you.
I'm going to sit down here and chat with you for a little bit, okay?
>> Oh, please do.
>> Aunt Mary, Mr. Lynch would like to talk with you and I about what you would like to have... about funeral arrangements and death preparation.
Can you... would you like to speak with him about that?
>> Oh, yes.
>> Mary was getting progressively worse.
She wanted very much to remain independent, but it came to a point she realized she really couldn't be on her own.
She was diagnosed with lung cancer, and within a couple of weeks, she checked herself into hospice.
I don't know why she was so direct with death and dying.
She was not a woman of faith; she searched for it, but she hadn't found it.
She felt she'd lived a very good life.
And she spoke openly of it.
Cremation is what you've chosen.
Aunt Mary, would you like to be cremated?
>> I think the main thing is... >> Having her not be frightened made it so much easier to be there for her, to talk about it.
Death is not always something easy to discuss, but she was so open about it, it became comfortable.
Do you know what's ahead for you, Mary?
No, I have no idea.
And that's kind of interesting.
>> What do you mean?
>> Well, what is going to come?
What will happen?
What is the next picture?
I don't know.
I can't... can't even guess.
>> What time do you have class?
>> Until 10:00?
>> And that's what, chemistry or bio?
>> Do you have lab?
>> Yeah, 7:00 to 10:00.
And then tomorrow, I've got 10:00 to 3:00.
>> And so you could come in tomorrow evening if we need help on that visitation for the King family?
>> I have memories as a very little boy being brought over here with my father while he was working, and watching him and his colleagues dress and casket bodies, you know, very quietly, very reverently, doing something for someone that could no longer do anything for themselves.
And even at a young age, before I could articulate the importance of that kind of work, I recognized it as something very significant and essential.
>> My father was ill for a relatively short period of time.
His cancer was diagnosed fairly late.
So, he was healthy and out doing yard work in the summer, and in hospice and very sick by the new year.
So, it was a fairly quick progression.
My dad was not a real open person.
Through a lot of the illness, there wasn't a lot of talking about it directly.
But as he became very sick and was coming to terms with it internally, he did start to talk about it more.
He would make comments about him not being afraid of dying, not being afraid of death, but being tired of the illness and wanting it to be over with.
I was surprised by how important some of the details become-- having things look right and, you know, having a nice suit on or a nice sport coat on.
My dad hadn't been wearing anything but hospital gowns and sweatpants for months at that point, and to be able to see him looking like himself, and... you know, with a coat and tie on, ended up being a real comfort.
I think being in the presence of someone dying and... and losing someone, having someone die that you know is always more than you think it's going to be.
It's just the most sort of immediate and real experience that you can have.
In the case of my father, we knew his illness was progressing and we knew he was dying, but when it happens, it's a reality that you're not prepared for until it comes.
>> I view the viewing of the dead as one of the most fundamental aspects of acknowledging grief.
Reality can no longer be denied; the death is literally staring them in the face.
When my mother died at age 65 and my father came into our funeral home and, for the first time, stood at the casket of his wife of over 40 years, his sweetheart since childhood, he turned to us and he said, "For over 40 years, I've been telling people how important this is, this moment when we see our dead, but I never fully appreciated it until right now."
And seeing my mother dead and seeing my father dead, I believe that's absolutely true; that we can imagine it, but to experience it is an entirely different thing.
>> We've set aside this hour to remember and to celebrate the worth and the meaning and the significance of the life of Dennis Arthur King, for never did anyone touch the lives of so... >> "Where death means nothing, life is meaningless.
Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms and lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters.
It's how we assign meaning to our remarkable histories.
And the rituals we devise to conduct the living and beloved and the dead from one status to another have less to do with performance than with meaning."
>> We encourage people to take as much time as they need with their dead.
To see them, wake them, carry them to their final resting place-- whether it be cremating the body or burying it, to see it sort of in its final phase.
>> We'll just guide the casket right onto the...
I view cremation as an alternative to burial or entombment, as opposed to an alternative to a funeral.
But many people don't know that they can go and that they can bear witness to that placement of their loved one into that retort, into that crematory.
( machine whirring ) Push it in all the way, fellas.
You're welcome to.
Almost everybody can remember some time in their youth or childhood or adulthood having been present for the burial of someone in their family or someone in their circle of friends.
But if you ask any group of ordinary citizens, "How many here have attended a cremation?"
there are very few hands raised in the room.
But there's no question that cremation has become normative in a way that it used to be exceptional.
>> When I die, I've told my wife I don't care.
I have nothing against cremation, I have nothing against burial.
I guess maybe that's... being in the business, it's... to me, it's just a vehicle you're putting in the ground; the person's not there.
We allow families to be as involved in the burial process as they would like to be.
It's something about being there and shoveling the dirt even on your loved one that gives you a sense of peace.
When you see it lowering in the ground, you realize that there's no turning back, you'll never see that person in this lifetime again.
(birds chirping) >> If you walk around the cemetery, you know, you see the families that were original settlers of the area and just kind of travel through time with these families.
You see who married who and women who lost three or four children, women who died in childbirth, just all of these histories that are kind of documented there and underneath the oak trees and... it is... it's a beautiful place.
I do go there sometimes.
He thinks it's a little creepy.
>> It's a little creepy.
>> Not the cemetery itself, but the idea of just going, walking through a cemetery for a reason other than to bury someone.
But I like to see the history and I feel some sort of almost kinship with these women who have buried these children.
You know, you see those tiny little tombstones and you see these stories, and then we have this story ourselves, you know?
And it's, in some ways, kind of comforting or something.
I don't know why, but just to feel like we're a part of this history and that others have gone through it.
And we're just one more family, you know, with our own child and our own grief and also our own will to survive, because we have to go on without him.
You know, he will be gone and our story will continue, just like those other families, you know?
>> Oh, baby.
Ready to sleep, huh?
>> "I remember in those first years as a father and a funeral director, new at making babies and at burying them, I would often wake in the middle of the night, sneak into the rooms where my sons and daughter slept and bend to their crib sides to hear them breathe.
Like my father, I had learned to fear.
And as my children grew, so, too, the bodies of dead boys and girls I was called upon to bury.
I would not keep in stock an inventory of children's caskets; I'd order them, as the need arose, in sizes and half sizes from two foot to 5'6", often estimating the size of a dead child not yet released from the county morgue, by the sizes of my own children, safe and thriving and alive.
And the caskets I ordered were invariably 'Purity in Gold' with angels on the corners and sheared crepe interiors of powdery pink or baby blue.
And I would never charge more than the wholesale cost of the casket and throw in our services free of charge with the hope in my heart that God would, in turn, spare me the hollowing grief of these parents."
( telephone ringing ) >> Lynch & Sons, Sean Lynch speaking.
Hi, Anne Patrice.
Okay, everyone's taken the time that they need?
We'll make our way over there shortly.
Is there any concerns or questions that you have or that any of the family has before we make our way?
We are, you know, just a short distance from you, so we should be over momentarily.
And we'll see you in a bit, okay?
>> Tim, they are going to plan to use the casket that they had made, so they'll have blankets and they will... they're going to have a couple of things to place with him.
>> Let's not use the cot, then.
>> Okay, we'll just leave it here.
>> I'll put that jump seat up a little higher.
>> When people are trying to tell you what happened about someone dying, what they're giving you is a narrative.
They're telling you their story.
And I notice this about grieving people, that the story takes on sort of a repetitious, rote characteristic as if it was, you know, like a prayer.
"He woke up in the middle of the night.
He asked for a glass of water.
I brought it to him.
He took a sip and then there was this heave, and he was gone."
>> I woke up to a sound.
I could see him clearly 'cause the moon was out, and when I looked at him, I could see that his breathing slowed, and I watched him take his last three breaths.
And the hard part is-- I don't know, maybe it's the great part-- is that everything... everything inside me, the mother in me, was just saying, "Go."
It was time for him to go.
>> I saw her hands changing color.
They were getting blue and I said, "Are you cold?"
Is she cold?"
And then it seemed that Mary was having trouble breathing.
So we let the nurse know and she came in and gave her a shot to make her more comfortable, and she was gone.
She just stopped.
Everything just stopped.
I touched her, I rubbed her arm, my sister did, we said our good-byes.
I stayed for a little bit.
And then they were coming to take her away and I just left.
>> Did she wear dentures?
She's got her own teeth.
>> And no valuables are going with her, and the death certificate is here.
>> One, two, three.
>> "To undertake is to bind oneself to the performance of a task, to pledge or promise to get it done."
"Among the several duties of a funeral director is, of course, the disposal of the dead for the living's sake.
The dead I bury and burn are like the dead before them for whom time and space have become mortally unimportant.
Whatever being the dead have now, they have by the living's faith alone."
>> Go ahead, son.
You can fill that.
>> When we bring someone here to the funeral home from the place where they've died, the first thing we do is place them onto the embalming table.
And then we make an assessment of the condition of the individual's body.
Their hands are positioned, their head is placed on a block to position it.
And then we set the features, the terminology for closing one's eyes and closing the mouth, setting and positioning the features so that there's a pleasant appearance, if that's at all possible.
It'll be right in here.
You'll see the blueness of the vein first.
>> Is that it right there or is that a muscle?
>> That's the vein.
Work the fingers side to side and try to release any of the rigor mortis that's there.
>> After someone's embalmed, the first things I try to see are what sort of positive things have happened as a result of the embalming-- the filling out of their tissues, someone's coloration changing to more of a normal pigment.
What I'm really trying to achieve is, you know, a sense of realism; not so much that you're trying to beautify someone as that you're trying to identify someone.
But no matter what size paintbrush you use, it's impossible to erase death's after-effects.
I think the sheer motionlessness of someone-- eyes closed, mouth closed, you know-- no matter what pleasant expression someone has, the stillness about the room, the flat pulse, I think, you can feel that.
>> When my father died, I remember seeing the body on the table, horizontal, and I remember thinking, "This is what my father will look like when he's dead."
And then I can remember thinking, "This is my father dead."
And it was like a door closing between tenses, you know, not "This is... this is what he'll look like, this is him."
It's going from the idea of the thing to the thing itself, seeing what we know to be true and don't want to be true.
>> I was shaking before I saw him, you know, the first time in the casket, and then I take one look and I'm, like... he looked beautiful to me.
I mean, there he was, you know.
>> Yeah, he was so peaceful.
>> I think the part that was hard is knowing that I wouldn't be able to hold him, realizing that he really was gone from his body and not, you know, coming back to me, and... even though, again, my logical mind understands, it's a hard realization.
>> We bless you now, Anthony John, with this holy water, that recalls the day you were reborn in the living waters of baptism... >> I know there's things I want to believe, you know?
I want to believe in a heaven, I want to believe that I'll see him again.
You know, I want some connection with him to know that I can have that even when his life here is gone.
( priest chanting ) >> I think a lot of people have questions with religion, and certainly none of us knows for sure what happens, you know, after we pass.
And there's a strangeness about sending your child first.
I kind of feel like I have to take my own chances when the time comes, and I do that on my own terms.
And I'm willing to accept the unknown for myself, but when you have to send someone first, it's harder to swallow.
>> I was happy we had carried Anthony.
That meant a lot to me.
>> I didn't really want anyone to do it except the two of us.
I was glad we did that.
We decided at the cemetery, right then, that we would lower him with our fathers.
>> For me, it wasn't as difficult as, like, taking his body from the house, putting it in the car or closing the casket.
I think for me, once the casket was closed, that part was closed and I kept focusing on the fact that the part of him that wasn't just his body was really gone.
So, at that point for me it was, you know, his precious remains, you know, a place I like to go back to, but not him.
So, there's the missing of him, knowing that now he's out of my reach.
But for me, that part was more his remains and a reverent moment, but not as painful for me as the other two.
>> "I'd rather it be February-- the month I first became a father in, the month my father died.
I want it cold.
I want a mess made in the snow so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant.
Forego the tent, stand openly to the weather, get the larger equipment out of sight-- it's a distraction-- but have the sexton, all dirt and indifference, remain at hand.
Go to the hole in the ground.
Stand over it.
Look into it.
Wonder and be cold.
But stay until it's over.
Until it's done."
(birds chirping) (clock ticking) >> What I've written is that, while the dead don't care, the dead matter.
The dead matter to the living.
In accompanying the dead, getting them where they need to go, we get where we need to be-- to the edge of that oblivion and then returned to life with the certain knowledge that life has changed.
>> We invite you to explore more about this story and the people you have met at Frontline's website.
There you can take a moment to watch the video of the Verrinos' moving eulogy for their baby.
>> Our son knew the happiness of acceptance and unconditional love.
>> ...and read more of the interview about their child, and his life and death.
There is also video and readings to explore about the intimate realities of death and grief, the meanings and rituals of a funeral, Americans' attitudes toward death, and what it means to be an undertaker.
Plus, watch this program again online and join the discussion.
Share your own experiences with deciding how to handle a love one's funeral, or your own, and your planning for it.
>> Next time on Frontline/World... >> If you don't coorperate, they'll put you in a dark hole.
>> It is called rendition.
>> No one will know anything about you.
>> Suspects taken from their lives and taken to secret prisons.
>> Prisons where we'll do anything to get information, whether it's true or not.
>> Does it work?
And at what cost?
>> We can't become a renegade country; we're a country of laws.
>> "Extraordinary Rendition," next time on Frontline/World.
>> Frontline is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
With major funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Helping to build a more just world.
And additional funding from the Park Foundation.