Library Screening:

A Family Undertaking

Beth Westrate has taken some of the pain away from one of the great taboo subjects — death, and its close relative — funerals. These final rites do not have to be impersonal, she found while filming her documentary, “A Family Undertaking,” but rather can be an inclusive, idiosyncratic family celebration of a life.

Before getting involved in 2004 in “A Family Undertaking,” the PBS documentary to be screened Thursday, August 2, at the Princeton Public Library, Westrate’s experience with death was “the typical American experience.” It was not something she had thought deeply about, and she was actually doing research on a lightweight film about “kooky things I had heard about being done for people after they die.” Example: a company that, for a price, shoots ashes into outer space or into a coral reef.

In the process, she stumbled across a website for someone who had a home funeral organization. “I first thought it was sort of creepy,” she says, “and didn’t understand why anyone would want to do it.” But by the time she got off the phone with the organization’s contact person, Westrate was “convinced that I couldn’t do any other film.” Her original idea now seemed immature and silly. “You can only be flip for so long before you realize death is pretty profound.”

A native of Fairfax, Virginia, Westrate, who is the owner of documentary production company Five Spot Films, always knew she wanted to live in New York City and work in a creative field. She studied film and television production at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (Class of 1992). But she grew to love documentaries only toward the end of her education. “I find real life to be more interesting than things that are inventive,” she says. “It’s so fascinating to have an excuse to go into the world, meet all kinds of people I’d never get to meet, and experience all these unusual situations.”

Working on the film, a documentary about home funerals, caused her to rethink her own experiences with death. Although her grandmother had died when she was 10, her grandfather died while she was doing research for the film. “His funeral was identical to hers — the same place, the same everything,” she says. It wasn’t that she found this upsetting, but because she was learning that other options existed for more personal involvement, she thought about how the experience might have been different.

“We hadn’t questioned visiting hours at the funeral home,” she raises as an example. The “professionals” had dictated a certain amount of family time alone with the deceased, then two hours of public visiting. Afterward, she thought that maybe they would have liked to have more time with her grandfather, just the family, or even to stay overnight. Or, she continues, “maybe we didn’t need to buy all the things we bought.” In any case, “it didn’t need to be exactly like my grandmother’s.”

What Westrate likes about home funerals is that you can include whatever you want. In many families, the deceased has been in hospice care and died at home, and the family may bathe the body, lay the person out on a bed, build a wooden casket or decorate a crematorium container. (“This is nice for the children in the family,” says Westrate. “It can be a very therapeutic process.”) The family can even transport the person to the cemetery or the crematorium.

Although this process is fairly simple, what is complicated is being organized ahead of time, knowing the local laws, and completing the paperwork. All of this will be difficult to handle in the midst of a death, she says, “but if you are prepared, the rest is fairly commonsensical.”

What’s great is the latitude family and friends have in how involved they want to be. “They may want to keep the body at home overnight, and then work with a funeral home,” she says. “Or maybe they will discover that embalming is not really necessary and, if they knew they had a choice, they would not choose to.”

The home funeral movement has spawned its own professional, a parallel to midwives who guide the home birth process. They are called death midwives, and they talk people through the ABCs and help out along the way.

What Westrate treasured most during the filming was “meeting the two families that let us follow their process — the Carr family in South Dakota and Anne Stuart and Dwight Caswell in California. They were incredibly generous to let us come into their homes with a camera at this intimate time.”

The Carrs, a family of ranchers, got together to build the wooden casket for 90-year-old patriarch Bernard, who also helped out. Bernard’s grandson actually built the coffin and Bernard burned the family cattle brand into the head of his own casket. The women made the burial bedding.

“It was not a sad event,” says Westrate. “I would have expected it to be a somber occasion — building a casket for someone you loved.” But instead people were joking, including Bernard, even though she admits it was not completely lighthearted. “It was more like a project they were working on,” she says, “and it must have been cathartic for them in some way.” Bernard, who had the idea for the endeavor, was very appreciative.

Westrate was able to spend time with the family while Bernard was still doing fairly well and to talk to him, his son, and his grandson about Bernard’s impending death and why they wanted to do a home funeral, which they had done years before for Bernard’s wife.

Bernard died a couple of months later, and they filmed both the funeral and the burial in the coffin that Bernard had branded himself.

Westrate only met Anne Stuart once, toward the end of her struggle with breast cancer, but got to know her husband much better. The funeral was held in their small house in Sonoma, California. “For me what was wonderful was to see how friends and family gathered around Dwight,” she says. Anne died in her bedroom, but was laid out in the sunroom, a place where she had spent a lot of time and where people would come to visit her. Westrate found it very peaceful to have the funeral in Anne’s home, clearly a place where everyone felt comfortable.

Before doing the film, Westrate had never asked her own family about their own wishes. “A lot of people, when someone dies, find themselves so anxious trying to do right by them and spend a lot of money trying to honor someone,” she observes. “Maybe if they had had a conversation, it would have been clear that the person didn’t want that $6,000 casket.”

Besides the two funerals that Westrate’s crew filmed themselves, a number of families were able to contribute to the film without the intrusion of a film shoot at their funerals. In some cases Westrate provided them with small video cameras to set up during the service; in others, they sent her footage they had shot of family funerals.

Because the home videos were usually shot from a distance, they were less intimate than the scenes Westrate’s film crews were able to capture. Westrate explains in an interview on the PBS website: “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 led 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.”

The solution was to use the home videos early in the film to illustrate what the home funeral “experts” were saying. This also saves viewers emotionally for the more powerful images of Anne and Bernard’s funerals later in the film.

The funeral business also makes an appearance in the film. Westrate views it as just that — a business. She doesn’t think that funeral directors are necessarily greedy, but in the end standard funerals are a very expensive, cookie-cutter process. But it’s also something we have accepted since the Civil War, when undertaking first came into its own as a business. “As a culture,” she says, “people do pay for this. They sign on for it.”

The film includes footage from a trade show for funeral directors in Orlando, Florida, where people from the industry come to sell products to each other. “Once families are removed from the scene, you see what a business it really is,” says Westrate. “It’s almost like any other convention you would go to, but all the products are related to the funeral industry. It was somewhat surreal to be there, because I wasn’t used to it.”

Also in the website interview, Westrate describes a funeral salesman explaining to her that a family’s motivation to spend thousands of dollars on a casket is the same as that of a bride who spends thousands on a dress that she will wear only once. “He presented this argument as justification for the great expense of a funeral,” she says. “However, I thought it was a perfect illustration of how we may be losing sight of what is important.”

Westrate’s film editor, Melissa Neidich, waded through more than 100 hours of raw footage. “We worked to find a balance between being honest and showing everything, but also trying to pace the emotional scenes of the film so people wouldn’t be overwhelmed,” she says.

The editing process was complicated. “It was such a sensitive subject,” she says, “one that many people are uncomfortable addressing.” Since it was her first film as a director, Westrate was grateful to be able to work collaboratively with such an experienced editor.

One of challenges of making documentaries, says Westrate, is to maintain a steady income, because funding has become so scarce. She says that she has been lucky to work on many public television projects through the Independent Television Service, which funds, presents, and promotes independently produced programs, and she urges people to support funding for public television because “no other station allows freedom to a filmmaker to tell stories the way you think they should be told.”

For the past two years she has worked on the “Design: e2” series, about sustainable architecture and sustainable energy, for PBS.

After completing “A Family Undertaking,” Westrate produced and directed a documentary on Heifer International. She has been the associate producer of “The Vagina Monologues” for HBO; “Our House: A Very Real Documentary about Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents”; and “Heart of a Child” about a child in need of a heart and lung transplant.

Luckily, says Westrate, the people involved in her projects are devoted and get a lot accomplished on a relatively small budget. “Compared to a feature film or a 30-second commercial, our budgets are laughable.” And, as a result, she says, “I manage to live modestly in New York City. But it is not a career to go into to get rich.”

In the last 16 months Westrate’s life has changed a bit because she and her husband, who works for Berlitz in New York, have had a baby. As the producer for the design series, not its director, she can avoid travel for now.

Westrate loves it when people who see “A Family Undertaking” tell her they have changed how they view the whole subject. “My favorite thing,” she says, “is when I hear that people talk to their families, have the conversation.”

“Whether you would want to do a home funeral or not is almost incidental,” she concludes. “It’s just to think about the fact that you have choices.”

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