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Radio show lets the dead speak

Published Sep. 28, 2005

A special broadcast of This American Life explores the rise of funeral videos.

It isn't unusual in many cultures to find photographs of the dead displayed at grave sites or even etched into headstones. Now technology and show business have combined to update this tradition. Instead of listening to living testimonials to the departed, mourners can now watch the departed speak for themselves _ on video monitors, at funerals, in Internet postings and, in Los Angeles (where else?), even on cemetery grounds.

Sounds like a story made for television: a weird development in a familiar ritual, complete with pictures. But "Kodak Moments of the Dead" _ a report on this advancement in the funeral trade _ can be heard on the radio tonight in a special broadcast of This American Life, produced by WBEZ in Chicago, now celebrating its fifth year on the air.

The "Kodak Moments" piece perfectly illustrates the sly sensibility of the program's host and producer, Ira Glass, and explains why This American Life has developed a large and faithful following. Here he has taken a subject blatantly conducive to visual reportage and brought it to life through words.

Glass is a journalist but also a storyteller who filters his interviews and impressions through a distinctive literary imagination, an eccentric intelligence and a sympathetic heart. This report could be weird and mocking but is instead weird and funny and poignant.

Glass begins lightly, describing a funeral featuring a video with a soundtrack of Barbra Streisand singing.

"They laugh, they cry, they rewind," comments Glass. "Barbra hasn't had a hit like this since Yentl."

At another funeral, the deceased offers a few words to his family and friends on video: Learn to love each other, appreciate your differences. He concludes by saying he had no regrets except for a mistake he once made on a game show.

Glass later asks an editor of funeral videos, "Do people ever say, "Well, my dad was a drunk'?"

No, replies the editor. Everything is positive. From this, the radio journalist deduces, perhaps on more than one level: We do not want the whole picture.

It would be easy enough to let these strange proceedings speak for themselves, which might be the temptation with a camera in hand. Glass, however, tends to suspect that the story every picture tells may not be complete. He interviews a funeral videographer whose complex and affecting reasons for entering this business transform a "human interest" story into something deeper, truly interesting, actually human.

"Kodak Moments" is part of a traveling show Glass and his American Life group recently took to four cities to promote the program and its birthday. This broadcast is an edited version of these performances.

On This American Life Glass aims for a certain irony and wit rather than schmaltz, although a sense of yearning and idealism surfaces on the hip veneer. He has an unusual voice for someone who makes his living as a broadcaster. His tone is flat and nasal, he can't pronounce the letter L, and he often sounds slightly puzzled. But the intimacy of radio allows for, even welcomes, such idiosyncrasies, especially since Glass edits himself and his stories so well.

Television is less forgiving. On a recent appearance on Comedy Central's Daily Show promoting the live tour, Glass seemed self-conscious and giggly next to Jon Stewart's studied cool. This says far more about the two forms of media than about the two men, both astute, wry commentators on contemporary life but in different ways, through very different outlets.

The special broadcast of This American Life follows the program's usual format of three or four acts related by theme, like the kindness of strangers or the cruelty of children.

Radio Preview

This American Life airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on WUSF-FM 89.7. For more information or to hear the show via Internet:

Ira Glass is host and producer of the radio show This American Life, now in its fifth year on the air. Glass is a journalist and a storyteller.