The Undertaking – Behind the Scenes Documentary on the Funeral Industry
Every once in a while, a remarkable, inspiring program leaps out from television’s standard, mundane fare. As someone who rarely watches TV, I usually miss these rare gems when they come along. But to my good fortune, while poking around the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) website recently, I came across just such a program, now available online.
First aired in the autumn of 2007, The Undertaking tells a timeless story of life, death and dying from the perspective of a family of funeral directors and the people they serve, both living and dead. Based on a book by Thomas Lynch (The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade), the documentary leaves no stone unturned as it explores seldom-touched aspects of death, grief and funeral customs.
Lynch and his family have been in the funeral business for three generations. Alan Ball, creator of the Emmy®- and Golden Globe®-winning series Six Feet Under, describes Lynch as a “brilliant, soulful writer” and acknowledges that Lynch’s writings were a primary source of inspiration for the popular HBO series, which also centers around a family-owned funeral home.
From its somewhat gruesome, yet fascinating, glimpses into embalming, corpse care and the sifting of cremated remains, to the practicalities of caskets, crematories and cemetery plots, to poignant stories of grief and loss, The Undertaking focuses on the experiences of several real-life human beings as they boldly look death in the face:
- Anne Beardsley, whose beloved aunt, Mary Leonard, died at age 84, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer. After taking time to prepare for her aunt’s death, Anne seemed surprised at the wave of grief that overcame her when Mary finally passed.
- David King, whose father, Dennis, died at age 72 after a brief bout with cancer. David, once skeptical about the value of funerals, gained a newfound respect and appreciation for the rituals that helped him come to terms with his father’s passing.
- Robert Kelly, who visited Lynch to make funeral arrangements for himself and his wife. Kelly described the “relief” of knowing that their sons won’t have to answer a lot of questions and make difficult choices when he and his wife die.
But perhaps the most moving story chronicled in The Undertaking is that of Nevada and Anthony Verrino, whose two-year-old son Anthony was born with a rare genetic condition and ultimately died from complications related to the disorder. With profound courage and generosity of spirit, the Verrinos share their heartbreaking journey. (Watch Nevada Verrino as she delivers the eulogy at her son’s funeral.)
The Undertaking is also available on DVD.