NEW YORK – Through the eyes of funeral director Isaiah Owens, the beauty and grace of African-American funerals are brought to life in the PBS series POV (Point of View).
Filmed at Owens 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 cinéma vérité 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" will have its national broadcast premiere at 10 p.m. June 24, kicking off the 26th season of the award-winning PBS series.
“When it comes to death and funerals, African-American people, we have our own way,” Owens said. “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, who grew up in Branchville, S.C., moved to New York City in 1968 at age 17 to learn his craft. A few years later, he opened what would become one of Harlem’s most popular funeral homes, with a largely Baptist clientele. 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.”
"Homegoings" introduces some of Owens’ customers. Linda “Redd” Williams-Miller jovially plans her own funeral down to the last detail, including the exact shade of her namesake color to be used for her nails and hair. The children of Queen Petra are unsure how to honor their mother’s multicultural legacy until Owens suggests there’s no reason they can’t have a parade, led by a white horse and carriage, down the very block where their mother was a street vendor. Owens commiserates with Walter Simons, whose grandmother’s passing turns into a double funeral when his grandfather dies just two days later. They share the sorrow and joy in knowing that two people could be so connected by love.
Williams-Miller describes the African-American funeral this way: “Homegoing. A happy occasion. . . . going home to be at peace. . . . You’re going home to meet the ones that went on before you and they’re there waiting for you.” Owens relates the culture and history of death and mourning in the black community, harkening back to slavery and segregation. He recalls that when he was growing up in the South, the funeral director was a lifeline for the community. He also recalls more recent history from an era when Harlem was full of mom-and-pop funeral homes.
“When I was 13, both of my grandmothers passed away within two weeks of one another,” said documentary filmmaker Christine Turner. “My mom’s mother, who was Chinese-American, happened to be Methodist and was cremated, which was very atypical for traditional Chinese funerals. My father’s mother, who was African-American and Catholic, had an open-casket funeral—the first I had ever attended, leaving an indelible impression on me.
"Whatever our beliefs, death is something we all must face, and yet it is so often a taboo subject. With Homegoings, I wanted to open a conversation on death in a way that captured grief and sadness, but also the humor and the sense of relief that I sometimes observed from behind the camera.”