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  • Homegoings Directed by Christine Turner
  • Douglas Mungin
Homegoings. A documentary film directed and produced by Christine Turner. Produced by Peralta Pictures Inc., American Documentary, POV and the Diverse Voices Project. 2013. 56 minutes. Online at $3.99.

Death, life, joy, pain, and the African American experience are some of the many topics explored in Christine Turner’s hauntingly beautiful documentary Homegoings. The film examines these existential themes through the life of Harlem, New York-based funeral director, Isaiah Owens, of Owens Funeral Home, a family-owned business. The documentary follows Owens through the [End Page 354] thorough process of burial preparation with various families that he assists. In this film, death is not seen as an ending but rather an important transitional ritual for many African American families. Turner highlights that Owens Funeral Home and Isaiah Owens serve as not only a bridge for grieving families transitioning a loved one from life to death, but also as a geohistorical bridge that links Northern families to Southern traditions of African American funerals. Homegoings utilizes the personal narratives of these families to highlight migrating cultural traditions of African American burial ceremonies and how these rituals emerged from slavery when burials for African American slaves were disallowed and communities had to create unique and obscured cultural practices to honor the dead. The film frames these funerary rites as extensions of historical instances of institutional racism and violence and makes the argument that African Americans have created specific and rich cultural traditions that are centered on a narrative of death as a moment of justice where racial and societal oppressions will be alleviated.

This standard biographical documentary explores not only the life of Isaiah Owens, but also death rites in the African American community of historic Harlem, New York. Through interviews and oral historical accounts, five funerals are documented, ranging from small family gatherings in church to large parades through Harlem streets, complete with horse and buggy and bands. It is during the latter that one of the most chilling moments of the film occurs. During a processional for Petra Cruz Butler down the streets of Harlem, her spirit transitions into her daughter’s body during the parade and begins dancing and talking to the crowd, giving them her last goodbyes. Homegoings utilizes historical and familial photographs and music and pairs them with oral history interviews to present an often unspoken element in cultural curation—death and its connection to racial politics. In an interview that addresses the beginnings of African American funerals, Owens states, “For the slaves, death meant freedom. Even for blacks today, death brings us justice.” The utilization of oral history methodology is essential in detailing this history as it connects many cultural institutions of the African American experience that remain undocumented. It is here the film shines and adds an experiential element in its storytelling that allows the audience to empathize with the interviewees and their families and communities.

Many of the individuals interviewed in Homegoings frame death as a journey home in which the pain from life will be alleviated for those passing. Isaiah Owens, the film’s main subject, takes on the role of caretaker in this process. The concept of care is of upmost importance for Owens and one that defines his career and life. Owens has been a funeral director in Harlem, New York, for forty-two years and has cemented himself in the community as a leader and important figure in helping families transition from life to death. The film details Owens’s early life in South Carolina as a young awkward child who was obsessed [End Page 355] with funeral preparations and the burials of neighborhood animals, and his development into someone who currently provides detail-oriented care for his clients and community. Owens notes that his clientele has changed drastically in the last thirty years. In the 1980s, many of his clients were young men who died from gang violence and AIDS, while currently his clients have died of natural causes. For Owens, the health and stability of the community can be seen in the age and cause of deaths of people in the...