Christine Turner’s documentary, which was broadcast on the PBS series “POV,” focuses primarily on the work of Isaiah Owens, founder of the Owens Funeral Home in the Harlem section of New York. Owens recounts a lifetime fascination with mortuary sciences, dating back to his childhood in rural South Carolina when he would stage funerals for dead animals. (Owens also runs a funeral parlor in his hometown, where his 95-year-old mother works part-time as a receptionist.)
Owens’ story is the foundation of a wider understanding of the long tradition of funeral rites within the African-American community. The Jim Crow era forced black communities to handle their own funeral arrangements, and over the years a protocol emerged that involved boisterous memorial services celebrating the departed and widely-attended funeral processions that often rivaled parades in their size and scope.
More recently, however, shifting attitudes and rising expenses have taken a toll on Owens’ business. Nonetheless, Owens keeps this important community tradition alive, and his adult sons work alongside him to keep operations flowing.
Turner wisely avoids showing the more disturbing aspects of preparing a body for burial, and Owens carefully explains how embalming fluid works (he compares it to Botox in its ability to remove the signs of aging) without actually showing its injections into the flesh. The sincerity and intelligence that Owens brings to his work is genuine and heartfelt, which makes this portrait deeply invigorating.