Through the eyes of funeral director Isaiah Owens, the beauty and grace of African American funerals are brought to life. Filmed at the Owens Funeral Home in Harlem and the rural South, director Christine Turner's 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. It reveals the special status of undertakers in the community; borne out of their permanence, their economic stability, and the necessities of the segregation period. Combining cinema verite with intimate interviews and archival photographs, featuring an evocative score by Daniel Roumain, the film paints a portrait of the dearly departed, their grieving families and a man who sends loved ones "home."
African American funeral traditions developed over many decades under the restrictions of slavery and segregation. They encompass the retention of certain West African belief systems and represent a desire to bid a dignified farewell to loved ones. Funerals take on a special meaning, for while death is a time of loss and grief, it is also a time for celebrating the lives of the departed as their spirit goes on to eternal life in the Christian tradition or, "joins the ancestors". Death, then could be interpreted as a form of release from oppression and pain.
Undertakers came to occupy a special position in African American communities as the organizers of these important ceremonies. Their funeral homes, often family run businesses with a loyal clientele, became rare, economically independent institutions of means in the segregated South. They frequently became a lifeline for the community. In Homegoings, Isaiah Owens recounts from his childhood in rural South Carolina that, "Whenever somebody got sick, they would call Mr. Bird at the funeral home, and then he would ride out in the country to tell my mother, "Such and such one is real sick in Philadelphia, and your sister called."
Owens, is well-known, highly respected and appreciated for his funeral business in the Harlem community. He also has a funeral home in his South Carolina home town partly staffed by his still vibrant nonagenarian mother. As those closest to him in his family acknowledge, Owens was "called" to do this work. It is more than a business to him but a craft to which he is dedicated. He understands very well the needs of his clients as illustrated by his very detailed meeting with a jovial woman purchasing a pre-planned funeral, how he counsels a family on having a multicultural funeral and how he commiserates with a grandson faced with planning a double funeral for his grandparents.
Homegoings examines how the traditions are being forced to adapt to our lean economic times, as families opt for cremation, instead of the more costly burials and as smaller "Mom and Pop" funeral homes close.
Homegoings will resonate with those familiar with the traditions as well as move and inform the uninitiated who want to understand how specific cultures deal with death and mourning. It will be a compelling resource for classes in African American Studies, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Social Work, and the health professions.
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