Memorial videos give families lasting farewell

Shortly before Connie Dunlap died in October, she sat in front of a camera focused in a tight close-up and talked about her faith and how it shaped her battle against cancer.

"Our legacy is usually money or property that we pass down to our children and grandchildren," she said softly but earnestly. "But I think a legacy of faith and our life is much more valuable."

The Forest Lake, Minn., resident, who was 68, had called the Rev. Alan Naumann and asked him to record a farewell message to be shared with her family after her death. "It was important for her to know that her grandchildren, who were too young to remember her, would one day get to know her," said Naumann, who also is a videographer.

Memorial videos are the latest twist on the video slide shows of snapshots chronicling a life that are often shown at funerals. Aging baby boomers, comfortable in the medium of video, are using it not only to look back but also to leave a final message for the future. They share insights from their life and impart advice. Some are somber, others lighthearted.

This new kind of video -- sometimes called legacy or end-of-life videos -- is becoming so popular that some funeral homes are being outfitted with video projection systems and churches that used to frown on them are embracing them.

Once you've seen one of the videos, advocates say, you'll understand why.

"The emotional impact of these is so powerful," said Ken Kurita, owner of Videon Productions in Excelsior, Minn., who made a memorial video for his father's recent funeral. "Which memory would you rather take with you (from a funeral) -- the lifeless body lying in a casket, or the living, breathing person you loved, complete with all their mannerisms, their smile, their sense of humor?"

Kurita's father, who died in January at age 83, used his video to recall boyhood anecdotes and even worked in a little humor. "That was my dad," Kurita said, tearing up slightly as he watched the video in his editing booth. "This is all about life's treasured moments."

Sometimes, even the videographers are moved by the end result. Mike Madden from Moviescreen Films in St. Paul, Minn., was recording a wedding when he coaxed the camera-shy father of the bride to sit down and give a 3-minute interview. The man died unexpectedly three weeks later.

His daughter "told me that 3-minute interview is one of the most precious things she has," he said.

While the number of videos being shown at funerals is on the rise, just wait a decade, Naumann said. A lot of the work he does now involves people who want to get their stories on record while they're still sharp in their minds.

"We're shooting stuff that we'll have on file for years" before it's needed for memorials, he said.

Naumann, who is credited with making one of the earliest memorial videos in 1988, said it came out of his dual background. In addition to being a minister, he's the owner of Minneapolis-based Memory Vision. In the late '80s, he was serving as the chaplain at Hillside Cemetery in northeast Minneapolis. He bought a video camera and started experimenting with it. One of those experiments was a video biography, and when he showed part of it at the subject's funeral, he knew immediately that he was onto something special.

"It was overwhelming," he said.

Still, memorial videos didn't catch on right away. For one thing, editing video was a laborious task because the tapes couldn't be cut and spliced like film. It wasn't until the digital revolution enabled editors to use a computer to mimic film editing that the memorials started to gain popularity.

It also took persuading to get some churches to allow them. Naumann made a video about a Roman Catholic nun, only to have her parish priest reject the idea as conflicting with the solemnity of the funeral mass.

"I called him up, clergy to clergy, and explained how the video was going to show all the wonderful things this woman did to help people," he said. "He finally agreed to let us show it. He was so impressed by the video that after the funeral, he started showing it to other groups. He became its biggest supporter."