The Undertaking

An Interview with the Film's Producers

Karen O'Connor and Miri Navasky talk about how their film The Undertaking got started, some of the challenges they had in making it, and how the experience has affected their thinking about what they might want for their own funeral. Navasky and O'Connor's previous programs for FRONTLINE include Living Old, The New Asylums and The Killer at Thurston High. This interview was conducted in August 2007.

Producers O'Connor and Navasky

How did you come to be interested in this subject? What led you to Thomas Lynch?

KAREN O'CONNOR: Back in 1995, David Fanning, FRONTLINE's executive producer, came across an essay by Thomas Lynch in Harper's Magazine. Taken with Lynch's observations and insights about his life as an undertaker, David immediately called him. Not long after their conversation, David and I traveled to Milford, Mich., to talk with Tom and his family about the possibility of making a documentary that tackled the tough issues of mortality and grief. For all sorts of reasons, the project never came together at that time. But last fall Miri and I got the green light from FRONTLINE to try again.

How was it that you were able to get permission to have cameras inside the funeral home?

K.O.: Gaining access was a long and difficult process. I'd stayed in touch with Tom over the years, so Miri and I went back to Milford, met with Tom and his family and asked them to consider doing what they had never done before: allow cameras inside their funeral home. With the understanding that nothing would be filmed in or around their funeral homes without permission from family members, the Lynches agreed to give us complete access. The project was finally set in motion.

MIRI NAVASKY: While the Lynch family agreed from the start that this was an important film to make, we were all nervous about sensationalizing death and exploiting people during their time of grief. We all agreed that, even with the Lynches' permission to film every aspect of their funeral business, any filming inside the funeral home, including that of the deceased -- closed or open caskets -- should happen only with permission from the families themselves. So we ended up spending a lot of time with the local clergy, local hospice programs and the like, meeting people that were already in the process of preparing for their own death or the death of a loved one.

K.O.: Not surprisingly, there were many logistical challenges to filming inside a working funeral home. For obvious reasons, scheduling of any kind was nearly impossible. And to complicate matters further, we had to find people who were not only willing to be filmed, but who were also able to articulate, even in the midst of their intense grief, the meaning of such deeply personal experiences. Also, many of the subjects who agreed to be a part of the project died before they could ever be filmed. Most days, it felt as if we had to keep about 100 plates spinning at once.

How did you find and gain the trust of the families?

M.N.: Hospice seemed to us a natural place to start -- a place where we'd more likely find people and their families who were already grappling with death to one degree or another. The Verrinos, for instance, had been coming to terms with the fact that their son was dying almost since his birth. Mary Leonard, already in hospice, knew that she likely had only weeks or maybe even days left.

K.O.: We tried to meet as many families as we could before a death occurred in order to allow families time to consider the ambitions of the film before deciding whether or not they wanted to participate. In almost every case, the people who were dying were remarkably courageous about sharing their own experiences. But even when meeting with families prior to a death, talking in such a detailed way about what we could or couldn't film, it was never easy. And the responsibility to get it right, once permission was given, was always intense.

In some instances, like that of Mary Leonard, the conversations were easier to have. Mary, age 85, was fearless about confronting her own death, so she was comfortable having very specific and detailed conversations with us about what she would be willing to let us film. And she gave us permission to film everything except her actual moment of death.

Often, we were not able to meet with families prior to a death because most people don't come to a funeral home until someone has already passed away. But in nearly every situation, it was an odd and difficult task -- similar to what the Lynches face in their work -- to ask people to make decisions about relatively mundane and practical matters at precisely the time they were facing profound matters of death and grief.

By far the biggest challenge was the emotional one. During the course of production, over 20 people that I had gotten to know passed away, often unexpectedly. Some others, or their families, decided not to take part, or in some cases were so ill that it would have been inappropriate to film them. And spending so much time talking with people who were facing their own immediate deaths was unsettling and disturbing. Without a doubt, it forced us to face our own mortality more directly, and it ended up being much more difficult than we imagined or expected.

What were the logistical challenges in filming this kind of story?

K.O.: The "observational" films that we make -- films that take viewers deep inside these seldom-seen worlds -- pose enormous production challenges.

In the past, we have spent a lengthy period of time researching the film and finding subjects and then filmed for scheduled periods of time. Typically we have about three weeks to shoot a FRONTLINE film, and that means everything has to be "scheduled" as much as possible before we bring our film crew in. But given the unpredictability of this subject, it was virtually impossible to schedule anything other than some general interviews. So the "advance" work became crucial in our production process; we would go to Michigan for one to two weeks prior to any scheduled shoot in order to prepare.

There was also tremendous anxiety that something critical like a death or funeral would happen when our principal crew wasn't with us, so we had to arrange and coordinate 24/7 coverage with a number of local crews. Somehow, against all odds, it turned out that our cameraman Ben McCoy was able to film nearly every moment in the film.

It was incredibly complicated, and we felt an extra burden to tell a story that was not only truthful but also respectful. We also didn't want our presence to detract in any way from anyone's wake or funeral and/or to intrude too much on a family that was already struggling with grief. We tried, to the greatest extent possible, to record these events without changing the experience, or changing it as little as possible. That's never an easy task for a filmmaker, but one that seemed especially important for this film.

Did the film turn out as you envisioned, or did your focus change during production?

M.N.: This film was constantly changing. At the start we knew we were interested in following the day-to-day realities of what the Lynches do as undertakers, and also in looking at the overarching idea, what does it mean to confront death and the dead, not only for the Lynches but for others as well? While we didn't know what role the Lynch family story would play in the final film, we knew, early on, that finding the right balance between the Lynch & Sons story and the stories of the families they serve would be very important. In addtion, we had no way of knowing which of our subjects would actually pass away while we were in production.

Also, we weren't sure what place, if any, Tom's writings would have in the film. Early on, Karen had decided to ask Tom to read some favorite excerpts from The Undertaking, in case they could be useful in the edit room. Those readings turned out to be enormously important when we, with our editor Daisy Wright, were structuring the film. Through the entire production process, the intellectual and emotional shape of the film was constantly evolving and changing. It's true in every film to some degree, but in this one more than most, we had to let the stories lead us.

Were there any stories -- in the film or not -- that had a particular impact on you?

K.O.: Because we were dealing with the profound issues of life and death, every story had a particular meaning for us, but there was one story that had deeply affected me. Through the home-care hospice program at Angela Hospice I met and developed an instant connection with Mary Ann Davis, a 63-year-old woman who had been battling late-stage ovarian cancer and who wanted very much to contribute to the film. During pre-interviews without cameras, Mary Ann spoke with extraordinary intelligence, insight, and candor about her imminent death. Both Miri and I recognized immediately that she would become a central character in the film, but the day before we were scheduled to do the first of multiple interviews, Mary Ann died at home, suddenly and unexpectedly.

There have been other documentaries about funerals and the funeral business, and these have dealt with alternatives such as home burials and environmentally friendly funerals. Did you consider addressing this?

M.N.: We would have filmed home burials and "green" funerals, both of which the Lynches would perform if asked, but those types of funerals never happened during our filming. We filmed whatever rituals the families we were following chose.

People who advocate alternate funerals have long complained about the sales tactics of undertakers. Your film doesn't go into this.

K.O.: Those issues are important and have also been pretty well covered. Since the publication of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, the abuses of the funeral industry have been more widely reported. And the world of funeral homes and funeral directors are easy to parody and mock. In this film, however, we were interested in sparking a new conversation in this country about the meaning and purpose in the rituals of mourning and grief. Like our other films, we wanted to work with those who do their work well -- in this case, undertakers -- in order to look more deeply at those issues.

What do you hope viewers take away from The Undertaking?

M.N.: We hope that it makes people less afraid to think about and talk about death. Perhaps, in some small way, it will inspire people to confront their own mortality and discuss it with their friends and families. The experience made both of us think harder about what's ahead. Perhaps it made us a little less afraid.

Pre-planning one's funeral is part of some of the stories you follow in your film. Has it led either of you to consider doing this?

K.O.: No, but it did make us both think about what we wanted for our own funerals and begin to have conversations with our families about what they might want as well. The entire crew also learned a lot about options that we never knew we had; none of us, for example, had a clue that we could accompany a body to the crematory.

And how might you envision your own funerals after making this film?

M.N.: I had been pretty sure I wanted to be cremated; now I'm much more open to burial, though I think I will likely leave it to my family to decide. What has become more important to me, however, is to have a place for my family to go after I die. I am researching whether I could be buried on land that my mother and father own. I'd like to begin to create a sort of family burial place.

K.O.: With a name like O'Connor, I'd seen my fair share of open caskets and formal funerals, but I wasn't convinced that I'd want one for myself. But now, a viewing, whether private or public, is something that I do believe is important. I've decided I want to be buried, not cremated, and want family and friends to lower me into the ground and shovel the dirt on me. I think everyone on our crew ended up re-evaluating what they're going to do after death -- for themselves and for their families.

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posted october 30, 2007

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