Yolande’s Yard: Homegoings in Harlem (video)

Homegoings_01By Yolande Brener

Christine Turner’s documentary, “Homegoings,” examines the work of funeral director, Isaiah Owens, a man who laughs and cries with his customers, who in turn trust him to lighten their time of loss. Owens Funeral Home, based in Harlem and Branchville is the place “where beauty softens your grief. ”Watching the funerals in Homegoings, I saw how Mr. Owens’ dedication comforts the bereaved.  One woman wanted a horse and buggy. He suggested a parade in the area where the woman used to work as a street vendor. Members of the community joined the parade, and a participant channeled the deceased, pronouncing, “I can dance.”

Homegoings_02“I knew it was my calling when I started,” said Mr. Owens. “It’s just what I was born to do and to be.”

When he was 5, Mr. Owens buried a matchstick. “That was my first funeral,” he said. “When I was growing up, I buried frogs, I buried chickens, I buried the mule that died. I buried the neighbor’s dog and the dog’s name was Snowball.”

Homegoings_06Director Christine Turner became interested in Mr. Owens after reading about him in a newspaper article that noted his reputation for “beautifying the dead.”

Homegoings_03“I began to film Isaiah’s everyday work at his funeral home,” she said. “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.”

Ms. Turner also examined the historical aspect of how funerals evolved in the African American community.

“There was some time when slaves were killed by their owners,” Mr. Owens said. “It wasn’t a proper funeral. But they did their best. They came up with these songs like soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home.”

Homegoings_04Homegoings got over a million views on PBS. Also, because of its universal themes, it is being used as a teaching tool in subjects as diverse as African American studies, psychology and anthropology.

“I’m reminded of how short our time can be here.” said Ms. Turner. “And for me I was reminded of the preciousness of life.” She continued, “There are things that are unexpected and can be tragic, for me I’m just reminded that I want to really appreciate people around me and treasure what I have.”

Homegoings_05“I can’t be afraid of death,” said Mr. Owens, “because it’s like a computer. It’s already built in to every person so it’s just a matter of when.”

He continued saying, “So for me I just want to be able to go and be someplace where I’m at peace and happy when I go, not if I go, because I’m going to go. Everybody’s going to go.”

If you’ve ever wondered about the life of a funeral director, or how different people find ways to ease their grief, you will love this documentary.

Here is the trailer for the film:

Homegoings is available on vimeo on demand. In March, the documentary will be shown in BAM’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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