Inspired by Six Feet Under, this short doc reveals the beauty of preparing the deceased for their eternal rest.
This week, I was surprised to receive an email that looked like I had emailed myself, but it wasn't some strange phishing scam. Filmmaker Chris Bone contacted me (because of/in spite of/regardless of our similar names) to introduce his recently completed short documentary, The Last Man You Meet.
I'll admit I checked out his short doc purely based on his name, but I reached out to Bone for an interview because I was particularly moved by the images he captured behind the scenes at a funeral home.
You can watch the short doc below, but before you do, please realize that you will see images of real people who have died and are going through the preparations for funerals and cremations. The images at times are very provocative, but in my opinion, also quite beautiful and very human.
Chris Boone (No Film School): First, you have great name, but I'd like to point out to our readers that we are definitely two different people with oddly similar names, and I'm not simply talking to myself. Did it weird you out a little bit when you saw my name on NFS and decided to reach out?
Chris Bone: Let's be honest: It's the only reason we're talking.
NFS: Where did you come up with the idea to go behind the scenes of a funeral home for your short doc?
Bone: HBO's Six Feet Under inspired the initial idea. It's my favorite TV series—everything about it—but the title sequence has always stuck with me: those simple, elegant glimpses into that world.
So that was the visual inspiration, and then I needed a story and a voice, but almost every funeral home in the country is owned by a corporation, and none of the ones I asked were keen on me interviewing their staff and then poking around with a camera. I almost gave up after hearing "No" dozens of times, but then one day I was shooting on an unrelated job and happened to meet [protagonist] Mr. Levett.
Once I found out what he did, I immediately pitched him my idea. He referred me to his daughter, Deana, who loved the idea and became the film's de facto co-producer because she had the access and relationships that I needed to get this done.
And then finally, in terms of my vision for the edit, I was inspired by a short called Dust & Dirt, which was directed by Chris Stanford and shot by my friend, DP Zach Wolfe. I just loved the simplicity of their film, so that was the last piece of motivation to get me going.
NFS: Your film's images have a poetic quality to them, so I was particularly surprised when that poetry also revealed bodily fluids, lifeless flesh and bodies being cremated. After the initial shock, I felt compelled to look closer. Because the footage is slowed down, were you aware of what you were capturing in the moment with these images?
Bone: Honestly, no. We blocked out days according to the locations I knew we needed, and I had a general idea of the imagery I wanted to capture, but we didn't have a formal shot list. I had to evaluate each setting once we arrived, so my mind was immediately consumed with lighting concerns, lens selection, setting up the gear, talking to anyone who'd be involved in the shot, etc.
After I got all of that settled, I thankfully fell into that wonderful world photographers and DPs love to be in, where you start seeing things from an almost distant view or outside perspective. I would just get in the zone, so the reality of what I was shooting never really hit me until the end of the day.
"Right after I got in the shower, I noticed little rivulets of ashy water running down my chest. That was a particularly heavy moment."
This was probably most pronounced after we shot the cremation scene. I had dropped off the gear and was about to go to a dinner when I decided to take a quick shower before leaving—yes, it seems ridiculous in hindsight that I considered not bathing at all—and right after I got in the shower, I noticed little rivulets of ashy water running down my chest. That was a particularly heavy moment.
NFS: This film felt very personal and intimate. Just like the funeral home, you treat the deceased in the film with respect, but did it ever feel like you were intruding on something private?
Bone: Well, Deana, the co-producer, secured permissions from the families of the deceased before we filmed any bodies, and she also got permission from the family shown at the funeral, so I never felt like I was being disrespectful in that sense. I also never felt like I was intruding on the stillness of the deceased because I was simply documenting a process that would happen with or without me being there.
You also have to remember that the embalmers and other funeral home staff are not tip-toeing around the deceased whispering prayers. Of course they're respectful and professional, but they're talking and interacting with each other like anyone else would at a normal job.
"Oftentimes, you can get better quality over the long run if you know when to back off."
Now, that being said, I did, however, choose not to film certain moments of the funeral because I could sense the family needed to just cry, and that's not easy when a stranger is pointing a camera at you.
Obviously, I wanted to get as much footage as I could during the funeral, but oftentimes you can get better quality over the long run if you know when to back off, and that's definitely something I learned during my last job as a crime and courts newspaper reporter. I was regularly around courtrooms, jails, crime scenes and people mourning (shootings, vigils, funerals, accidents, etc.), so I did have experience being around death in a professional capacity before this project.
NFS: What was the most difficult aspect of making this short?
Bone: There were two. The first was the edit. It was a tricky task portraying reality without grossing people out when the reality was oftentimes unpleasant. Second were the indeterminate smells I came across. The embalming room has this stale-yet-sweet smell that's impossible to describe, and then at one point during the embalming process, I had to step away and regroup after a pocket of gas escaped the corpse.
NFS: After making this film, has your perspective on death changed, and if so, how?
Bone: For me, Mr. Levett, the narrator, re-emphasized the importance and practicality of faith when it comes to things we have no control over. I know I've had to deal with an area of my life that would be impossible to do so without trust in something greater than myself. I'm not sure if that answers your question, but I guess he just made me feel more comfortable with death. Plus, I couldn't have asked for a better voice.