PBS Frontline: 'The Undertaking'

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor
Wednesday, October 31, 2007; 11:00 AM

Frontline producers Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor were online Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their film, "The Undertaking," which examines life and death through the eyes of poet and writer Thomas Lynch, a funeral director in Milford, Mich.

" The Undertaking" airs Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Navasky and O'Connor have produced a number of documentaries for Frontline, including "The Killer at Thurston High" on high school shootings in Oregon, the Emmy-nominated "The New Asylums" on the imprisonment of the mentally ill, and "Living Old," a disturbing but moving account of what it means to grow old in contemporary America.


Boston: Some of the stories in your film -- particularly the story of the Verrino family -- were so heartbreaking. How did you get them to agree to the interviews? Have they seen the film?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Yes, The Verrinos are a remarkable couple in every way. We met them through a pediatric hospice program - at Angela Hospice in Michigan. They had been dealing with the prospect of their son's death for a long time and were very direct about it. They believed there was some value in letting people know about their son, his story, what they and he had been through and how they were all coping. As they mentioned in the film, they had been dealing with the reality of their son's death literally from his birth, so in many ways they were more able to talk about it than other people around them. Yes, they have seen the film and from what we understand it was, for them, a moving record of their son.


Boonsboro, Md.: You couldn't have chosen a better funeral director than Thomas Lynch to do your special. In our opinion, this has been the only show to depict what funeral director's really do. Very, very well done and very, very tasteful. Thank you so much.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thanks. We agree. Tom, his brother, Pat and their entire family are the kind of funeral directors that we'd want taking care of our families as well.


Anonymous: Hours before your program aired I was at the cemetery having finalized the wording on my father's gravestone. We had him cremated months earlier. I was entranced, horrified and ultimately exceedingly grateful for the detail with which you chose to show the cremation and embalming. It confirmed for me how "right" our decision to have him cremated was, and how much the cremation honored the body we loved for so long. Your program was courageous. Thank you.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Very appreciated. We had the same reaction watching the cremation - something neither one of us had ever seen before and were both grateful to know now what happens and what we can do.


Fort Myers, Fla.: I had the pleasure to watch "The Undertaking" last night and was so moved by Mr. Lynch's poetry, work and heart. Thank you for having the "heart" to do what you and thanks to Miri Navasky and Karen O'Conner for sharing with the public the sacred side of death and dying.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thank you for writing in. We really appreciate it.


Bismarck, N.D.: I thought this was unusually tastefully done. Thank you. Question: Why did you limit so greatly the role and message of the ministers and priests? The movies portray them as quoting briefly from the Anglican liturgy. If you wanted to demystify the funeral process, there is more to their function than that. They were shadow advisers in your depiction, but surely they have a larger role for many people than you would suggest. They do in my community.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: That's a really good question. Yes, we agree, from what we saw, ministers and priests play a huge role in death and dying and the rituals surrounding....Though religion (and the roles of ministers and priests) might not have been directly tackled in the film, we hope that questions of spirituality, faith, afterlife are seen through some of our subjects (i.e. Mary Leonard and the Verrinos). As well, we were limited to 52 minutes and there was only so much we could tackle so we just really let our characters lead us as best we could. Thanks, very good question, again.


San Francisco: Thank you very much for airing and documenting "The Undertaking." I learned so much about the world of funeral homes and what they do. ... I was touch much about sweet baby Anthony who is such an angel on earth. Bless him and his parents. And bless all on the show. Thanks much for your loving works.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thanks for writing. We'll pass on your good wishes to the Verrinos.


Durham, N.C.: Miri and Karen, as a funeral director, I am incredibly proud of the honest and straightforward way you have portrayed our vocation in this "Frontline" episode. And you could not have selected a better firm than the Lynch's nor a more prophetic voice than Tom Lynch. The content and subtle nuances of "The Undertaking" demonstrate that you truly developed an understanding of the essence of this sacred work of ours. Thank you for finally a positive, nonsensationalized and tasteful representation of the funeral service profession.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: thanks for writing.


Northern Virginia: I happened on your program last night and found it riveting and very very moving. What a beautiful treatment of such a taboo subject. I have never seen footage like. The young couple who lost the baby were so articulate and so sad. Kudos. It was really well done. Initially my husband was worried that it could be a violation of the deceased person's privacy, but we think you treated the dead with great dignity. How did you decide to handle that?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thanks that means a lot to both of us. Yes, we were very fortunate to meet the Verrinos, their great boy, and the other families in the film. It was a hard subject to tackle and we tried in every way we could to handle it with as much respect and dignity as possible. We decided at the start of the project that we would carefully choose what to film and take great care with how we were filming these delicate scenes so that nothing would be sensationalized or exploited. And, of course, we didn't film anything without the families permission.


St. Paul, Minn.: "The Undertaking" was an outstanding and moving documentary. I was reduced to tears, something that doesn't happen often to this cynic. It even prompted a discussion with my husband of what we wanted to happen when we die.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: We're very happy to hear that. That's our great hope, that it will prompt discussions like this everywhere (it certainly did for us).


Westport, Conn.: Thank you so much for such a moving and sensitive show. I do not think we consider the meaning of death often enough as we look at the questions of life. I did cry at the bravery of the parents of young Anthony. Thank you again for your important work.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: They are very brave and courageous. And its true, most of us have trouble considering death, let alone talking about it. Thanks for writing.


Chicago: Riveting. Scary. Beautiful.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: thanks for watching and writing!


Kansas City, Mo.: What is your sense/understanding on why we as a society don't embrace planning for our inevitable death (whether we pay for it or not) in the same way we plan for retirement or other life stages?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Good question. Too frightening, I suppose. Or, I guess, some might argue, that its not up to us to plan, but should be left to our families and love ones.


Greensboro, N.C.: Thomas Lynch is one of my favorite poets. There's something about the guy that reassures you that everything is for the best. He's level-headed and warm and decent and his poetry is surprising and beautiful. You really captured him and his life beautifully. Thanks for that. Was it hard to get taciturn Michiganders to let you film their private lives?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thanks. We'll pass on your wishes to Tom. we assume you're talking about they lynches and no, they were willing to let us in to most aspects of their lives, but, as you saw in the film, the emphasis was more on what they do, than it was on their own private personal stories. And the other Michiganders were incredibly open and direct with us. thanks for writing.


Saratoga, N.Y.: I had expected a show about the technicalities of the undertaking process (which you did cover) but did not expect such an insightful look at death itself and the rituals and traditions our culture uses to deal with it. The show left me wondering about how our traditions compare to those of other cultures' ... any plans to take on that subject?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: That's a great question. We could no tackle it in this film, obviously. But recommend you check out the frontline Web site www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking where there is more information/links about other cultures and how they handle death.


Overland Park, Kan.: Having just started having more exposure to this industry in the past nine months, it is quite apparent to me how nearly everyone sees their work as more of a calling -- like the ministry. They really do embrace their roles as caregivers. And many people actually are changing careers -- going into the funeral director or embalming professions. Fascinating.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Very interesting to hear. thanks for writing.


Washington: In watching the program last night, I was especially struck by the segment in which Lynch talked about the importance of having the deceased present at the funeral, and the need for the mourners to see the body. I'm Jewish, and open caskets are not part of our funeral ritual; I've always felt it was a gruesome and morbid custom, but Lynch's comments made me look at the practice very from a different perspective. It was a wonderful and thought-provoking program.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: I'm Jewish too and had a similar preconceived notion, but I was totally changed by he making of this film. I actually found it all quite comforting. Also, we were just told about an orthodox ritual in Judaism where close community members help to prepare a body. I hadn't known about that. If you want to read more from the interviews, please check out our Web site www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking


New York: How did your ideas about the structure of the documentary (lack of narrator, music, length of camera shots, etc.) evolve over the course of dealing with such a sensitive subject?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: whew, hard question, but a good one. In many ways the subject led the style of filmmaking. We knew from the outset that this would be a different kind of film for us and had always imagined a more cinematic film (i.e. no narrator). But it took us awhile to figure out how to use Tom's readings. The music evolved over time, though our composer, Justin Samaha and our editor Daisy Wright, collaborated closely trying to come up with the right tone (which was not easy). And in terms of camera shots, our Director of Photography, Ben McCoy, is always trying to capture the emotional quality of the story, visually. And, as you saw, he did in every way. Please check out the Web site for more.


Durham, N.C.: Did your involvement in this program influence thoughts or plans about your own funerals or choices you would make for family members' funerals?

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Yes. definitely (although our plans keep changing). Karen, for example, has come to believe in the value of a viewing (whether private or public). And I am swinging back and forth between cremation and no cremation, but I know that I want my family involve and I know, that I want to be buried in a place where family can visit. And everyone on the crew ended up reevaluating their own plans and choices. Great question.


Lakewood, Colo.: Your program was a wonderful find last night. I must have told ten people about it already. Thank you so much! My question is more of a personal one: I am wondering whether or not you consider yourselves "religious" in the "Judeo-Christian" sense, and if so, how has making this documentary affected your faith? And if not, what are your personal views about what happens to humans after death? Thanks again for your compassion that went into making this program.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Whew, hard questions. I think we both have to answer separately. I am Jewish, but not particularly religious. Honestly, the film did not affect my faith or my beliefs in god. However, I have come to realize how comforting the structures of religious rituals are. And I would want some form of Jewish custom in my funeral process if I had the choice. I'm still struggling with my views of an afterlife.

And Karen?

I'm still struggling too with questions of faith. I was raised Catholic and though I would describe myself as an agnostic, I do still respond to the funerals rituals that I grew up with.


Greensboro, N.C.: I lost both my parent within 35 days of each other, my mom to Alzheimer's and my dad to multiple myeloma, earlier this year, as well as my husband's uncle the week before my mom passed away. I would have loved to have been a part of this project in order to have had an outlet, as well as to have documentation of what we experienced. Your show last night was a wonderful comfort, a way of sharing the experience with others who've been through the same thing at the same time we did.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Thanks for writing. To read more, check out the Web site, www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking.


Clarkston, Mich.: I was moved by the fact that Mr. Lynch stayed at the grave site until the last load of soil was put in place. At my own father's graveside, I somewhat resented the presence of the sexton with his work clothes and shovel ... and his "just another day on the job" attitude. Now I see it as a comfort, a sign of the cycle of life, if you will. Thanks for that.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: We will pass this along. I had the same reaction.


Largo, Fla.: My wife and I were very moved by the show. I also recommended it to members of my Buddhist meditation group that met just before it aired. Reflection on impermanence of life and the inescapability of death, which can occur at any moment, are part of the daily meditation exercises of serious Buddhists. Mainstream American avoidance or suppression of death only makes it more complicated for us as a society to deal with. On Halloween today children and many adults both seek mock fright and giddy thrills with the symbols and artifacts of death, in order to conquer the fear of death by jesting with it. We seem fascinated with the idea of it and play with our fear of it.

However, such entertainment does not mature us spiritually. I hope PBS will develop a series on death and bereavement that will help the public understand different perspectives and practices of death and bereavement so that our dying may educate about the ubiquity of dying in our lives. We also need to hear from the sages of Eastern traditions, especially Tibetan Buddhism, who seem to know so much more about living and dying honestly and peacefully than we do in America.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Great. Hopefully PBS will do just that. Please look at the Web site, www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking, where they talk more about other rituals, Buddhism included.


Kent, Ohio: Hi, your program was wonderful! I finally got to see how my husband's death was handled last year -- to know how he would have been cared for from death to burial/cremation. How wonderful it would have been to witness the cremation -- had I only known. Great, insightful production! Thank you so much!

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: We had no idea either about the cremation. But we feel the same about a lot of our family members.


Troy, Mich.: When may the program be repeated? Soon, I hope. Thank you.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: We're not sure, check your local listings and our Web site. But the entire progam is also streamed online at www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking.


La Jolla, Calif.: Did you observe any significant differences in the benefit received from funerary services as between people of religious faith and those without such faith? Did Thomas Lynch discuss religious faith at all during your interviews? Why was there so little reference to the role of religious faith in this end-of-life experience? Thank you, this was a wonderful piece of work of which you should be rightly proud.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: Look at Tom's extended interview online (www.pbs.org/frontline/undertaking). As we said in another question, we really followed our subjects and what mattered to them. for us, the Verrinos definitely took on issues of faith in their interview (you can also read more online). But again, we had limited time to tell our story. Thanks for your comments!


Marietta, Ohio: What a well done piece. Mr. Lynch is a gifted person. I would like to see a discussion guide for lay folks come out of it ... or perhaps a discussion guide for a gathering hosted by funeral directors. The Undertaking was excellent. As a clergyperson and friend of funeral directors in my congregation, I was proud of what was presented. It was touching, informative, and real. What a wonderfully wide variety of stories. Surely every viewer could relate to one of them. In death we are pointed to life -- and if we all could embrace life as the Lynch family and funeral directors like my friends have done -- we would be a healthier people. Please don't stop with one presentation.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: You're right and you should get in touch with Tom Lynch through WGBH because he, and the University of Michigan, did in fact put together a wonderful study guide. Thanks so much for your comments.


Howell, Mich.: Thank you for a wonderfully inspiring program. I live in southeast Michigan and have had the honor to have known the entire Lynch family for nearly 40 years, including Tom and Pat's wonderful parents, Ed and Rosemary, and all the brothers and sisters. Lynch & Sons buried my father in 1999, even though they weren't the closest funeral home. My three brothers questioned the decision beforehand, but have said repeatedly that we made the right choice and will do so again when the time comes. The Lynch family is truly the very best at what they do.

Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: We agree. Thank you so much for your support and for writing!


Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor: thanks for writing! Please consult the website for extended interviews, links and more discussion about film.


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