Isaiah Owens, Seleste Burns, Linda Williams-Miller, Willie Mae Owens-Ross, Lillie Owens, Christopher Owens
(Peralta Pictures, Inc., American Documentary)
MoMA Documentary Fortnight: 27 Feb 2013
“I was never interested in giving a historical overview of the subject or using outside experts to contextualize the experiences of the subjects in the film. For me, I just wanted to hear from ordinary people, whether it was the funeral director himself or the grieving family members he serves. They are the real experts.”
“It’s good you’re doing this, because they would be in a tizzy.” Funeral director Isaiah Owens sits at his wide wooden desk, across from Linda Williams-Miller. She’s come by to make arrangements, not because she has a particular problem or diagnosis, she assures him, but just because, well, she’s been “sick a lot,” and, you know, you never know. And so Isaiah works with Linda, currently in her late 50s, on the budget, the dress, and even her signature red hair color. Linda doesn’t want her children to be “in a tizzy.” And so she and her daughter make arrangements with Isaiah—hopefully, long before they might be needed. “It’s going to happen eventually,” she says, smiling warmly.
Indeed. It’s a point that Isaiah makes more than once in Homegoings, Christine Turner’s lovely documentary about his funeral business. Screening at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight on 28 February, the film opens on a shot of trees and sky, shot from below, a look up into a beyond. “When I was a child, I created make-believe funerals. People thought that I was strange,” Isaiah says in voiceover, “because I was having this love affair with funerals, and I guess death and dying, of course. No one understood it and death always made people very, very uncomfortable, especially my mother. Now they just realize that I was just born to do what I’m doing.”
It’s not everyone who knows so early in life what he’s “born to be doing,” but both Isaiah and his mother, Willie-Mae Owens-Ross, describe his work as a kind of calling. She remembers her young son in Branchville, South Carolina devising ceremonies for chickens and cats and neighbors’ dogs: “Anything that he found dead, he buried, have a funeral.” For Isaiah, the process is about respect, about caring for the departed and also those left behind, easing a difficult transition for all. It’s also a business, with an office in Branchville (where his mother still works as a receptionist two days a week) and in Harlem. He describes his work in loving terms, and the film illustrates what he says, in a series of delicate, detailed images, increasingly revealing.
When at first you see Isaiah at work, the camera cuts to him from a close shot of a wig, ready and perched atop a Styrofoam head; Isaiah is bent over the corpse, his figure obscuring 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. Bodies are prepared for services, designed to console families and celebrate lives. 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.”
Here Isaiah and the film provide a context for what he’s been born to do, not only in the ritual of remembering and saying goodbye, but also in the meaning that death can bring to life—a life that has passed and also lives that go on. The film notes in a series of incredible archival photos the commerce, ceremony. And crucial social and political functions of black funeral homes. When white companies wouldn’t deal with black bodies, the work still remained, often times as a result of violence in urban communities. “I’ve been called to do this work by a higher power,” Isaiah feels certain, and when his own time comes, he’ll be able to “check off one thing, that he’s done a good job for the bodies, and never slighted anybody.”
It’s this sense of justice and continuity that Homegoings makes especially vibrant. The term itself refers to repetitions and cycles, journeys to a place where those who passed before you are waiting, and also where you will wait to embrace those coming after. If, during your corporeal life, you are left with “some pictures or some memories,” in going home, you are immersed. As Isaiah looks over pictures of his father, a sharecropper, he remembers and he looks forward too. His own son, Chris, takes up the family business, though, as he puts it, “I like the business aspect of the business. Dealing with the family members is too emotion for me personally.” You can see this, and so you appreciate Isaiah all the more.