When I was 13, both of my grandmothers passed away within two weeks of one another. My maternal grandmother, who was Chinese-American, happened to be Methodist and was cremated, which was very atypical for traditional Chinese funerals. Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, who was African-American and Catholic, had an open-casket funeral—the first I had ever attended, leaving an indelible impression on me.
Though just a kid at the time, I remained curious about the different ways that cultures mourned death. Many years later, when I came across a newspaper article about a beloved Harlem undertaker who had a reputation for “beautifying” the dead, I was reminded of my own experiences at funerals and wanted to find out more.
When I first went to meet Isaiah Owens, I was immediately struck by how different he was from the stereotypical cold and reserved mortician. Instead, he was warm and had a sense of humor that one doesn’t typically associate with an undertaker. He told me that caring for the dead was his lifelong “calling,” and that as a child he held his very first funerals for small animals on his family’s farm. I couldn’t help but wonder who he was and what it must be like to spend one’s life burying the dead.
A few months later, I began to film Isaiah’s everyday work at his funeral home. I quickly observed a man who was not only a skilled cosmetologist, capable of restoring beauty to the deceased, but also an important pillar in the community who shepherded families in need through their times of grief, if only for a few days. At the same time, I recognized in Isaiah’s personal story the legacy of slavery through sharecropping; the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to the north in search of work; and an overall decline in funerary traditions today that made his work as an undertaker all the more rich.
Over the course of four years, I dropped in and out of Owens Funeral Home, not only filming Isaiah, but also interviewing the bereaved about their losses and about their differing views toward death. For many, funerals were not only occasions to mourn, but also cause for celebration, reflected in the various “homegoing” services seen in my film. While some viewed death as a release from the trials and tribulations of the world, others saw it simply as the next stage of a spiritual journey.
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. Ultimately, I hope that viewers will be reminded, as I was while filming, of the preciousness of life as much as the inevitability of death.
— Christine Turner, Director/Producer