I saw a show on public television last night that I thought was fascinating, arresting, and superbly-done. Called “Undertaking,” it was a behind-the-scenes look at what a small-town undertaker does. At first I thought I couldn’t watch it, but as it progressed with details I thought might repulse me, I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen. It turned out to be narrated by the only funeral director in a small town in the very state where I live. His voice describing what he does was respectful, almost a hush, almost poetic. I was drawn in.
He talked about such things as helping people to choose a casket, to gently asking questions about what someone might want for their own or a loved one’s services, to tastefully showing “just enough” of the embalming process, washing, making up, and dressing a body for viewing, and talking with families to help them come to terms with the fact that a loved one was alive three days ago and now he or she has passed.
“It’s a shock,” he said, “a transition, and people don’t go through it easily. We are here to assist them through that transition.”
He told of when his own father had died, how he said to himself, looking at his father’s body on the table, “This is what Dad will look like dead,” then catching himself, saying, “Oh, this is Dad. He died. He is dead.” And he was taken aback that he could think that way, being the funeral director.
He said that if he were to gather 100 people and ask how many of them had put flowers on the casket of a loved one, or shoveled some earth atop the casket, or even helped to lower it into the ground, many would say they had. However, he said, few to none would say that they had gone to a crematorium to touch the casket or container, or even put their hands on it in an effort to “push” it toward the final flames.
“People don’t know they can do that.”
I know I was surprised to hear it. He emphasized that people need rituals of varying kinds to help them make the transition from life with a loved one to life without him or her.
“The smallest detail can become greatly important,” he said as he was shown knotting the tie through the collar of a white shirt on the body of a well-respected community businessman.
The show was highlighted by three families who would lose a loved one. One was a woman whose elderly aunt needed to talk about her wishes. Her niece brought the funeral director to the hospital to talk with her about her choices. The aunt was open about what she wanted, and grateful that she was able to express them before she passed.
Another was an older man whose family wanted to make sure that his services reflected his life.
And yet another was a young couple with a baby who from birth was very ill and whose health deteriorated every day until his death. What that funeral director did for this family was exquisite. The parents wanted to be very involved, even to helping to lower the tiny casket into the ground.
One of the most stirring moments of the show was when the funeral director spoke about readying a body for services. The body was shown on the table before him.
“I am always struck by the absolute stillness in the room. There is no heaviness to the body, no resistance, no sound of breathing. It is a hush. I lift a hand and place it here. I lift the other hand and place it there. A lived-life is in my hands. It is absolutely still. I cannot help but be overcome with respect during these moments.”
It was a stunning show.