The Undertaking

Navasky, MiriO'Connor, Karen

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: Jul-02-2008
  • Last revised: Jun-26-2008


"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 am the only undertaker in this town." The speaker is Thomas Lynch, a poet, writer and funeral director in Milford, a small town in central Michigan, where he and his family have cared for the dead and the living for three generations. The words are the introduction to a documentary film which was written, produced and directed by Miri Navansky and Karen O'Connor for PBS Frontline and which is a visual, aural and dramatic companion to Lynch's award-winning collection of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (see this database).

Although Lynch's poetic sentiments and philosophical observations about our own cultural estrangement from death ("We're among the first generations for whom the presence of the dead at their own funeral has become optional....") and about the crucial importance of our accompanying the dead ("In getting them where they need to be, we get where we need to be....") are a significant feature of the film, he himself is not the focus of the film. Rather, he serves as both guide and chorus through the stories of four individuals and families: Robert Kelly, eighty-five, who is planning his own funeral in meticulous detail; Anne Beardsley whose beloved Aunt Mary, eighty-four, is now facing death as boldly as she lived life; David King who is skeptical about the meaningfulness of bearing witness at his father's cremation; Nevada and Anthony Verrino who are the parents of a two-year old son born with and dying from a rare genetic condition.


The Undertaking is a beautifully produced and exceptionally moving narrative documentary about the mystery of death, the meaningfulness of ritual, the consolation of kinship, and the significance of place. As Lynch points out, the "dead matter to the living," and the four stories told in the film reveal the experiences and explore the discoveries of those who are bearing witness to a loved one's dying. Family members express their wonder at the hard work of grieving and the unexpected solace of funerals as well as their gratitude for the consolation offered by respectful, compassionate undertakers. The pace of the film is appropriately slow and the atmosphere quiet with ticking clocks, hushed voices, and a lyrical soundtrack.

The viewer is privy not only to the intimate and painful conversations of family members preparing for a death but also to the technical and practical preparations of a funeral. From the reverent washing of the body before the embalming to the methodical placing of chairs before the viewing, any discomfort with or cynicism about the rituals of death or the grotesqueness of the profession are dispelled. For instance, most viewers will likely be unfamiliar with cremation, which becomes a very solemn, very emotional event for David King who has approached his father's funeral with many reservations, feeling that viewing "someone's body with makeup" and participating in what he sees as simply "necessary customs" would be a "really strange, alienating thing."

And when the call about the death of two-year old Anthony John Verrino eventually comes in the early morning hours of a Michigan winter, viewers will also likely appreciate the sincere not yet polished professionalism of the youngest member of the Lynch family who softly answers the phone and thoughtfully chooses to drive the SUV rather than the hearse to pick up the child's body. Finally, for those viewers who have moved far away from small towns and ancestral plots, the documentary is a reminder of the comfort of belonging somewhere and of being recognized not only by your own family members but also by a family of undertakers who have long been an integral part of your community.

Primary Source

PBS Home Video