Mediations Between Life and Death: A Review of Homegoings

Homegoings, a documentary directed by Christine Turner, is an exploration of African American funerary practices through the portrait of a man who dedicated his life to guiding people through the most intimate and unknown even in a human life. The focus of the film is on Isaiah Owens, owner of Owens Funeral Homes in Harlem, New York and Branchville, South Carolina. Owens, a very charismatic man, is portrayed as a guide to the liminal space between life and death. Perhaps the centrality of Owens in Homegoings attests to the importance placed on the figure of the funeral home director in African American funerary practices. However, the specificity and details of certain funerals, or of Isaiah’s life, that are present throughout the film also help to underscore the idea that despite the universality we face in death—we all die, after all, a point the film conveys by showcasing epitaph dates even for the living—death is still a very personal experience. The film thus fulfills a dual role: it is a glimpse into African American funerary practices but also an intimate portrait of a man in the profession—a portrait that acts as a lens into the cultural practices of his community.

“It’s like walking down a road and holding the family by one hand, and the dead with the other hand, and getting them to that point where they don’t really need me and can go on.”

—Isaiah Owens

In describing funerals, Isaiah states that the person who does the eulogy can “get people over the threshold of sadness and into celebration.” This is very much what Isaiah does himself. When recounting the story of how he got into the funeral business, both Isaiah and his mom recall that as a child, Isaiah would spend his time constructing small funeral homes out of toys and hold tiny funerals in his yard for any creature that he came across whose life had expired. In one particular scene, Owens constructs one of these tiny funeral homes, stating that, as a child, this was the only thing he felt comfortable doing. This gives the viewer both a visual and emotional sense of the beginnings of his position as a guide through a process many feel uncomfortable with. In an interview with a lady who had come to plan her funeral, Owens offers his client a mixture of levity and assurance while asking what the color and brand of her hair dye is, in case she doesn’t have time to get her hair done before her times comes. “Being an undertaker,” he states, “you first have to be a caretaker.” This is just one scene where his charismatic nature is showcased as an essential feature of his ability to be a good guide in the process of death, and thus one instance where this film can be watched as a portrait of a man with what Owens himself terms “a calling.” However, although Owens’ personality traits are conducive to his profession, he is by no means the stand-alone example of a charismatic funeral home director; he trained and apprenticed at another funeral home in the community, and followed his grandfather’s unfinished dream of opening his own funeral home. Thus, Owens’ mode of caregiving for his community has also been cultivated through the previous generations and passed down to him, imbuing the profession with an important sense of continuity.

Homegoings also portrays African American funerary practices themselves—at least those in which Owens calls the “traditional Southern style,” which are African American funerary practices from the southern United states which often feature singing, clapping, processions, vocalized mourning, moments of touching and kissing the deceased to say goodbye, and which are attended by most of the deceased’s entire familial and friend network—as a process of continuity. The continuity is present on both a personal level with funeral homes as family businesses, and on a larger level, as Owens addresses the oppression faced by African American communities and the ways this experience of oppression historically affected fun. Touching on the personal level of continuity, he states that his grandfather had plans to open a funeral business, and now, Owens’ mother, wife, and children all work at the funeral home, and he hopes his business will provide for his family many years into the future. This personal level of continuity ties into the broader historical continuity and a remembrance of oppression when both Owens acknowledges that the funeral business was largely run by the African American community because, as he states, it was “a job that white people never really wanted to do.” Owens also acknowledges the importance of funerals among slave communities, in which songs were created and funerals were held despite the difficult circumstances of doing so. “For the slaves,” Owens says, “death meant freedom. It meant they would see a judge that was just and fair to them.” The scenes of recent funerals woven throughout the film act in concert with archival photographs of African American funerals, provided at the end of the film, to showcase this continuity visually.

The continuity is portrayed as a cathartic experience that ties into the funerary practice itself. Continuity with the past is portrayed as a possible cathartic experience when Owens says, “African American people, we have our own way. It has worked for us throughout the ages. It has kept us balanced, sane.” Scenes of funerals are filled with shouting and yelling and singing—a way of “releasing” what is inside, according to Owens. In this instance, not only do these funerary practices provide the possibility of catharsis for recent deaths, but they are also a way of acknowledging the pain may remain inside from previous deaths, injustices, and oppression. 

The notion of continuity that Homegoings portrays is balanced with an eye towards change, and how the current economic circumstances are changing funeral practices. Owens notes that the generation of “mom and pop,” family-run funeral homes is coming to a close in the emergence of bigger companies. Business has dropped due to the economy, and now many people choose direct cremation instead of a larger funeral because it is less expensive. A recently bereaved family member says that “some people don’t want to see [their loved one’s dead body] at all, but sometimes you need those last few minutes to touch, look, and feel, and let your tears flow.” This powerful statement and emotional scene of a funeral leads the viewer to ask an important question: In light of the importance of funerary practices among a community, what happens when economic circumstances take away these opportunities to grieve? 

Homegoings not only tells the story of Isaiah Owens, guide of a liminal space between life and death, but the film itself acts as a mediator between life and death as well. It does this work by introducing the viewer to people who are planning their funerals and recording the messages they leave for their loved ones—in intimate personal segments that feature the clients speaking directly to the camera. It also introduces the viewer to people who have recently lost a loved one and records their messages to the recently deceased, using the same style of segment. By recording and relaying these messages, the film acts as a bridge for verbal messages between loved ones across the divide between life and death, mediating the unknown and enabling a connection between these two states.

Of course, Homegoings is a useful film for anyone interested in pathways of grieving or anyone wanting a closer look at the often understated or overlooked figure of the funeral director. However, it is also an important film for anyone interested in the long-term effects of oppression in the United States, as well as resilience in the face of it, and how these things leave their indelible marks on funerary practices. It is a film that gives a sense of the continuity and catharsis present in these African American funerary practices, and sensitively acknowledges the oppression faced by a community and a tradition that has both endured and has been shaped by this oppression. The film itself acts as Isaiah Owens does, bringing comfort into the territory of the unknown. Two moments in the film visually accentuate this action. Brilliant funeral flowers being carried in the midst of a blizzard, and an image of the outside of Owens Funeral Home: a hard, stone bench with flowers and luscious plants surrounding it, with an inscription on the bench reading, “Where beauty softens your pain.” “Homegoings,” a grieving family member says, “going home to all our ancestors, and everybody that left before.”

Synopsis

Through the eyes of funeral director Isaiah Owens, the beauty and grace of African-American funerals are brought to life. Filmed at Ownes Funeral Home in New York City's historic Harlem neighborhood. Homegoings takes an up-close look at the rarely seen world of undertaking in the black community, where funeral rites draw on a rich palette of tradition, history and celebration. Combining cinema verité with intimate interviews and archival photographs, the film paints a portrait of the dearly departed, their grieving families and a man who sends loved ones "home." 

Homegoings was an Offocial Selection of MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight. A co-production of ITVS and POV’s Diverse Voices Project, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A co-presentation with the National Black Programming Consortium. Produced in association with American Documentary | POV.

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