Homegoings is a great documentary about an undertaker in Harlem, New York, named Isaiah Owens. The documentary is now being aired on Public Broadcasting Service’s POV (Point of View) program via streaming.
Owens says that he always knew that he had a calling to be an undertaker. Even as a young boy, he played funerals by burying everything from matchsticks to any dead animal that he could find in his hometown in South Carolina. “Anything that he find dead, he buried. Can’t even think where he got it from, but that was his calling,” said his mother, Willie Mae.
Owens recalls that when he was growing up in the South, the funeral director was a lifeline for the community. “When it comes to death and funerals, African-American people, we have our own way,” Owens states. “It has worked for us throughout the ages; it has kept us balanced, sane. And everybody know[s] that it’s going to be a sad, good time.”
Owens moved to New York from his hometown in 1968 and went to mortuary school, later working for a female funeral home owner. Shortly afterward, he opened his own business. The documentary shows Owens preparing bodies for funeral, comforting the loved ones of the deceased and even discussing a pre-arrangement agreement with Linda “Redd” Williams-Miller, because she wants to make sure that her burial is just as she wants it. Owens even notes the fine details of the color dye that Redd uses and the color and type of manicure that she would prefer when her time comes.
A heart wrenching part of the movie was when a woman died and a couple of days later her husband also died. Owens then was charged with performing a double funeral for the deceased couple.
Owen combines instinctive sympathy for those who grieve with a deep knowledge of African-American funeral customs that aims to turn sorrow into an affirmation of faith that loved ones are going “home.” In the movie, Owens talks about how his business has been suffering lately, because of the economy and because people don’t have the money for funerals; choosing instead to have their loved ones cremated. His shows the history of funerals back through slavery times, when slaves would bury each other the best way that they could—not trusting white slaveholders to do the job for them.
Owens is such a dapper man, and his wife, Lillie, shares that he has a different kind of spirit about him, because she would never have dated an undertaker. But his gentleness comes through in the movie, and you know you could trust him with anything, let alone a loved one’s remains. When he is dressing and beautifying the dead, he shows a dedication to craft and attention to detail that exemplifies Owens Funeral Home’s motto: “Where Beauty Softens Your Grief.”
He arranges a funeral that turns into a parade through Harlem with a white horse and carriage. During the documentary, Owens goes to visit his mother, who was 95 at the time of the movie, who works a couple of days a week as a receptionist at a funeral home that he owns there. There she shows her “bed,” which is a custom- made casket that she says is just waiting for her when her time comes.
Homegoings is directed and produced by Christine Turner, and shows the history of the dignified, respected profession of being a black undertaker. Throughout Homegoings, Owens relates the culture and history of death and mourning in the black community, harkening back to slavery and segregation. He explains that “when the slaves were killed, it wasn’t a proper funeral, but they kind of did their best. When they got down in the woods, away from the slave masters, they came up with songs like ‘Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with my God.’”
Homegoings is a moving portrait of a man and a people—and of the faith, hope and history that sustain them in the face of death. The film kicked off the 26th season of POV on PBS. To see Homegoings, either go to the website to purchase the film at www.homegoings.com or watch it on Public Broadcasting Service stream until July 24 at www.pbs.org/pov/homegoings