Dennis Marentette knows the devastation of loss all too well; he sees it fairly frequently in his line of work. In the last 20 years, Marentette has been a witness to at least 150 funerals, serving as the eyes and ears for survivors consumed by their grief. His job, he explains, is to preserve for posterity the moments that make the final tributes to a loved one so special—and such an integral part of the long-term healing process for those still living.
The Windsor, Ontario-based videographer doesn't do it to be morbid; his intentions are anything but voyeuristic. He readily acknowledges that the general public gives him "funny looks and feedback" when they hear he specializes in funerals. "I expect it," he says. "Most of the people who [question the propriety of] what I do have never lost someone very close. They don't understand what a nightmare it can be—especially when it's unexpected or tragic. The more of a shock a death is, the more oblivious the family is to who's [at the funeral], what's being said and sung, and so on. These are all things that are very, very comforting. They warm the heart at a time of great need." Though the grief-stricken may not be fully aware of these moments as they are occurring, having the ability "to put in a DVD later and experience it all again is priceless," he says. "This is what the families tell me afterwards, and that's why I do it."
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
Marentette's concern for and commitment to the people around him predates his formal videography career. In high school, he "was the kid shooting all of the school events." Though he had his own video camera "from grade 9 or 10 on," he never formally studied the craft. Instead, he spent his years at Seneca College studying for a certificate in law enforcement. (He graduated in 1974.) He followed that up with sociology courses at the University of Windsor while simultaneously serving as a police officer in various jurisdictions throughout Ontario.
By 1983, Marentette was anxious to pick up a camera again. "I'd always loved filming," he says, "and the hype around video at that time was incredible. It was pretty easy to get caught up in it. So I decided to start shooting video part-time." His first major project was the 1984 Corn Festival in Tecumseh, a town just east of Windsor (and across the river from Detroit, Michigan). "Tecumseh has one of the largest Green Giant plants in North America," Marentette says of his hometown, "and Green Giant is corn. Tecumseh's Corn Festival is one of the largest annual small-town festivals in Canada. To be able to shoot that for my community meant a lot to me."
Marentette assembled his festival footage into a film that residents could rent at the local video store. The film was such a hit that at some point it was stolen. "It was the only video ever stolen from that store," he marvels. It was during this period that Marentette opened a side business—a "fluke" venture, as he calls it—that laid the foundation for D.D.M. Video Productions, the videography studio he operates today from his Windsor home. "There was a place in Detroit that sold Hybrid-8s, so I bought a couple," he explains. "This thing was golden. It was the first consumer machine that could do wipes; before that, all you could ever get were fades. One day, the company offered me the Canadian distributorship, so I started selling Hybrid-8s across Canada. I [combined] my initials and my former wife Denise's initials to get D.D.M. And the name stuck."
By 1987, the video-production side of D.D.M. was shooting about 70 weddings a year. "We'd do as many weddings as we'd refuse—sometimes as many as three a day," Marentette says. What had begun as a part-time gig had become so big that he ultimately decided to leave the police force and become a full-time videographer. Over the next decade, he continued to build the business with a little bit of advertising and a lot of networking.
Marentette's desire to teach and learn from other videographers inspired him to join WEVA in the late 1980s and to form his own regional association in 1988. Dubbed the Professional Videographers Group of Windsor, the association held monthly meetings, organized trade shows, and drew industry attention to the videographers doing business in southwestern Ontario.
Although the organization folded in 1996 due to weak membership, Marentette's industry profile continued to blossom. He began speaking at various industry events, and in 2001, WEVA honored Marentette's industry-mobilization efforts in Canada by making him a member of its inaugural Hall of Fame class. Today he's a member of the WEVA board of directors and an active participant in both WEVA and 4EVER Group activities.
LIFE AND DEATH
Marentette's videography career is nearing the quarter-century mark, but the work that has brought him the most attention is a relatively new part of his repertoire. In 2000, a friend—who happens to be a funeral director—asked Marentette to consider filming some of the services at his funeral home. "The funeral home's head office was telling him this was something they should be doing," Marentette explains, "and so my friend offered me the opportunity."
Marentette says he was wary at first. "I had dabbled in the odd funeral every now and then," he says, "but it wasn't my primary business." Although the meager price the funeral home was offering "was just ridiculous," Marentette agreed to accept the work so he could avoid having to lay off an employee that had been with him for 12 years. Initially, the work involved assembling tribute videos of the deceased that could be shown at their funerals. The funeral home would give him photos of the deceased that had been provided by family and friends and he would have three days to shoot and edit them into a video. "After five months of doing these," Marentette continues, "I went back to the funeral home and said I could no longer do them at the price they were paying me. I asked for more money, and I got it."
Eventually, the funeral home wanted to start providing the tribute videos at the visitations that typically precede funerals by one or two days. "The timeline went from three days to 12 to 24 hours, which increased the price substantially," Marentette says. "I thought it would be stressful, but I soon realized that deadlines are strictly a mindset. If a funeral project comes in, everything else stops and I do that. Even if I have three days to turn something around, I do it immediately because I never know what else is going to come in." Somewhere along the way—he's not entirely sure when—Marentette began offering funeral coverage as well. Families can opt for discreet coverage at the funeral home, at visitations or other prayer services preceding the funeral, at the memorial services themselves, and at the burial site.
Marentette's well-received work eventually led to partnerships with other funeral homes in the area. "We went from one to five to 16 funeral homes—all of the ones in Windsor plus a few just outside of the city," he says. "They all deal exclusively with me. It works out beautifully, because I don't have to do any of the sales. The funeral directors sell all of my services for me."
Since 2000, Marentette estimates that he's done roughly 1,500 tribute videos (he now averages about 300 a year) and 100 or so funerals. "Right now I'm doing about 15 to 20 funerals a year, and that's growing at a rate of about 20 percent every year," he says. When he's not on location filming memorial services or in his 600-square-foot home studio editing funeral or tribute video footage, Marentette does DVD and MPEG conversion work, life biographies, and the occasional corporate project. He only does weddings on referral. "I've just sat with too many couples who didn't end up booking me," he explains. "That's my family time being sacrificed, and I'm just not willing to do it anymore.
"One of the beauties of doing funeral work," he continues, "is that it allows you to keep your own life in perspective. You look at the hardships in front of you—at what people are dealing with—and it makes you realize that whatever issues you have in a given day [pale in comparison]. The personal satisfaction I get from making their loss easier for them is unmatched."
Marla Misek is an editor and freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia.