Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Undertaking

Students know my affinity for the Frontline documentary series on PBS.

You can't escape a class of mine without being subjected to at least one of them. And coming next semester, probably in Intro to Sociology, or perhaps elsewhere, we'll watch and discuss the latest Frontline I watched the other night, entitled "The Undertaking".

Ostensibly about the funeral business, the program is much greater in scope, exploring how U.S. culture deals (or doesn't) with death and bereavement. Anthropological research has shown, for example, that we are one of the only cultures in the world that seeks estrangement from deny it, run from it, defeat it, cheat it, grieve very quickly, and then move on as if nothing has occurred. All cultures have funereal rights, but very few have the schizoid relationship with death, the logical conclusion to all living things, that we do.

This documentary sheds light on the process and goes a long way towards humanizing the "undertaker", a job and status we usually associate with dark over coats and morbidity. From a conflict theory standpoint, the "business" of the funeral isn't really explored and that's probably the only weak point in the entire hour. However, from a Functionalist standpoint, the role and vital functions of funeral directors is presented in depth. As with other occupations, we don't like to think of funeral directors and the job they perform, until we need one.

As important is the writing and poetry of Thomas Lynch, one of the funeral directors who appears in the film. Lynch is author of the award winning book "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade", a collection of essays reflecting on the death and bereavement process from years spent in the funeral business. The film is interspersed with his thoughts as various families, who allowed the film makers extraordinary access to their trip through the bereavement process, deal up close and personal with it. Death isn't only something that comes to the elderly, as the painful story of the young couple dealing with the death of their 2 year-old illustrates.

"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."
-- Thomas Lynch

Quite literally, one of the most powerful hours I've spent watching television in some time. You can watch the documentary online. We'll probably be watching it in class at some point.

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