POV: Homegoings

Jun 24, 2013

Check out what's to come this season on POV

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Season 26 opens with "Homegoings," which profiles Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper whose fascination with burials began as a boy, while also examining the traditions of African-American funerals.

Watch the full episode.

A thumbnail biographical sketch of Isaiah Owens might sound a little odd: A South Carolina boy obsessed with funerals grows up to be a renowned funeral director in New York City's historic Harlem neighborhood. The bigger picture, as captured inHomegoings, shows an exceptionally warm-hearted, philosophical man who pursues his business with equal care for the living and for the dead. He combines instinctive sympathy for those who grieve with a deep knowledge of African-American funeral customs that aim to turn sorrow into an affirmation of faith that loved ones are going "home." Paradoxically, Owens' success reveals that this precious tradition, formed in a time of rigid segregation, is disappearing. Homegoings is the portrait of man with a rare passion and of the inspired, if threatened, African-American way of death.

Isaiah Owens is the quintessential self-made man. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up among people who made their living picking cotton. When a loved one died, he says, relatives "would sign a promissory note that when the cotton is ready this year, that they would come back and pay. The black funeral director wound up being a friend, somebody in the community that was stable, appeared to have means."

But neither Owens nor his mother, Willie Mae, who today works as a receptionist at his other funeral parlor in Branchville, S.C., can completely account for the Owens' fascination with burials, even as a boy. When Owens was five, he buried a matchstick and put flowers on top of the soil. After that he progressed to burying "frogs . . . chickens; I buried the mule that died. I buried the neighbor's dog, and the dog's name was Snowball." Willie Mae says with a smile, "Anything that he find dead, he buried. Can't even think where he got it from. . . . But that was his calling."