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A camera that follows people – all the way to their grave.

Nothing could have prepared Johnny Marszalkowski, a seasoned wedding videographer, for filming a funeral. The call had come in, like any other gig, but with a unique request. An absent son couldn’t attend his father’s funeral. Could Marszalkowski record it? “I was terrified,” he says. “I normally shoot weddings. Weddings are happy. People are looking forward to the life ahead of them.”

Marszalkowski, owner of Orphonic Multimedia in Milwaukee, showed up at a small church in South Milwaukee at the appointed hour, a historic building where the stuff of good videos was waiting for him: no air conditioning, funeral goers dressed in dark clothing, steadily waving fans. “It was a lot of impromptu storytelling,” he says, and near the funeral’s end, “It started to downpour. It was like something out of a movie.”

The experience “wasn’t depressing at all. It was a guy who had lived a long, full life.”

And so, in 2014, Marszalkowski added funeral videos to his list of services offered, catering to relatives and friends, the infirm, elderly and military members serving overseas. So far, he’s only done a handful. He dresses in black. “I want to be a fly on the wall,” he says. “People aren’t used to cameras at funerals.” He doesn’t record interments, just survivors who share songs and memories of the deceased. “A funeral is a celebration of somebody’s life,” he says. “It’s a very alive experience.”

The second funeral Marszalkowski preserved on film took place in July at Rozga Funeral Home on West Lincoln Avenue, and when he walked in the door, someone strung a Hawaiian lei around his neck. “I was confused … I heard Hawaiian music,” he says. “I thought I was on vacation.” Lots of people were wearing Hawaiian shirts. The deceased woman, who’d had an interest in Hawaiian culture, had instructed it all in her will. The family had also decorated several Christmas trees in homage to the woman, who’d relished the holiday year-round.

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Marszalkowski charges $500 per funeral video, a service also advertised by videographers located in Australia, London and Southern California. Some local funeral homes offer live-streaming of funerals, but these are broadcasts that lack a videographer’s touch. Besides survivors, the Milwaukee videographer films mementos such as a stack of Hershey’s bars, a favorite snack of the man whose funeral concluded in a downpour.

“More and more people want events in their life documented,” Marszalkowski says. “If somebody said something that was worth remembering, a photo isn’t going to capture that.”

‘Last Witness’ appears in the May, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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