At work, Isaiah Owens splits his time between tending to the living and the dead. As tells his story in Christine Turner’s terrific documentary Homegoings, this funeral director—who knew what he wanted to be since he was a boy—brings you along, the camera close as he shares memories with survivors, helps them make arrangements, and then takes care of their loved ones, tenderly and compassionately. Bent over a corpse, his figure obscures your view. He wears blue medical gloves, as he injects “liquid tissue,” which he describes as “probably a first cousin to Botox,” one of many literal and metaphorical connections he draws between living and dead bodies. This lady is 98 years old, he observes, adding, “I’m going to need some Crazy Glue.” Later scenes of Isaiah at work show more, a face being made up, fingers being arranged, watery-red fluid swirling beneath a body toward a drain.
While these details of death might make some people “uncomfortable, for Isaiah, they’re inextricable from the other steps in the process. He prepares bodies for services, consoles families and celebrates lives. Opening the new season of POV on 24 June, the film provides images of this part of the work as well, preachers in full throat, as well as tearful mourners leaned over coffins and celebrants, their arms held overhead, their bodies swaying, their church full of joyful cries.
This sort of celebration may not be unique to black American funerals, Isaiah notes, but it has evolved from a specific set of experiences, from ancestors who sought to memorialize their losses and also imagine a liberation on the other side. “For the slaves,” he says, “death meant freedom, it meant they would meet a judge that would be just and fair to them. Even for us today, death brings us justice.” Isaiah’s work, his devotion, concerns such history and also the future, but most importantly, keeps focused on the present, as he helps guide his people from one moment to another.
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