'Everlasting VHS' video -- latest funeral offering

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 23, 1992|By David Jacobson | David Jacobson,The Hartford Courant

CONNECTICUT — Outside it's a dim rainy November afternoon. Inside, with a special videotape rolling, Jessica Oswecki, 16, watches as the beaming face of her late grandmother materializes amid a bright sunrise on TV.

That opening scene gives way to a snapshot of Grandma Julie as a young child. As the video camera zooms in close, Jessica says, "God, I look so much like her, my face."

The youthful portrait dissolves into footage of Niagara Falls, then into soothing autumnal views of Northeastern foliage, lakes and streams, all interwoven with photos of the late matriarch's life -- at her wedding, at her children's weddings, with armfuls of growing grandchildren.

An instrumental version of "Morning Has Broken" plays over all this, the soundtrack to what one local funeral director calls "everlasting VHS," the very latest thing in funeral home offerings.

As the six-minute video ends, Jessica's grandma's smiling face fades into a sunset and the camera pans heavenward. Jessica explains: "We wanted 'Tears In Heaven' [by Eric Clapton]. They didn't have it 'cause the song was so new."

In fact, the very concept of these tribute programs, as they're called by National Music Service of Spokane, Wash., the company that's producing them, is relatively new.

But in the three years since it introduced the service nationwide, National Music has made more than 10,000 of the video memorials that could figure as the future of final farewells, says Bernie Weiss, company director of advertising and public relations.

These are far from the videotapes of funerals that some homes now offer to out-of-town or convalescent relatives. The programs that National Music pieces together from snapshots, stock nature footage and songs selected by the bereaved are meant to "celebrate the life, rather than merely marking the fact that a death has occurred," Mr. Weiss says.

Most of the photos the company combines into videos show the deceased in happier days, maybe on warm-weather vacations, perhaps holding just-caught fish.

And while popular musical selections tend toward spirituals or the sentimental likes of "My Way" and "September Song," the company offers the sprightly "Centerfield" and "The Beer Barrel Polka" as possibilities.

Partly a way to help the MTV generation remember forebears, partly a vehicle for the grieving seeking emo

tional catharsis, the tribute program is also pitched as a new way of personalizing the process by which we say goodbye.

Merrill Womach, president of National Music, first got the idea for such recorded remembrances after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, as he watched the many televised retrospectives on JFK's life.

"It occurred to him, 'If we do this for people like presidents, why can't we do it for regular people?' " Mr. Weiss says.

It took nearly 30 years for that idea to bear fruit. It required, of course, the invention of home videotape players and their

distribution to three out of four homes in America.

It also took the development of express mail services so that selected materials could be forwarded overnight to National Music's production studios in Spokane in time to be incorporated into a taped tribute and returned the next day for showing at calling hours or a funeral.

Even given the technical feasibility and affordable price -- some funeral homes promote the video concept with free offers while others charge up to $200 -- memorials on magnetic tape may take some getting used to.

For example, when his mother died in April, Vincent Oswecki of Windsor, Conn., Jessica's uncle, was not thrilled by the idea of a made-for-TV homage.

"I thought it was in bad taste and kind of tacky . . . that was my first reaction," he says.

But the finished product changed his mind: "It's a nice little compact memory . . . You just put it in the VCR and there you Now he views the video as "a convenient reference for my daughters," now entering adolescence.

"As they grow older I can say, 'Here's a little something on your grandmother. It has a little fluff and a little bit of corniness but . . . ' It would be an expression of positive roots."

(Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Wednesday.)

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