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Funeral Director Reflects On Life Full Of 'Sad, Good' Times


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we head to the barbershop for the guys' take on the week's news. But first it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues of spirituality and religion. And traditions of faith play a big role in rituals surrounding death.

Isaiah Owens is a funeral director in Harlem. Owens is the focus of a new documentary, "Homegoings." It's about African-American people and the customs they observe in sending the dearly departed home.


ISAIAH OWENS: When it comes to death and funerals, African-American people, we have our own way. It has worked for us throughout the ages. It has kept us balanced, sane, and everybody know that it's going to be a sad, good time.

HEADLEE: Isaiah Owens joins us now to tell us more about his life and his work. Welcome.

OWENS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you first about - there's a great scene in the documentary from a funeral that you were in charge of, and they're actually showing the eulogy and the audience is laughing and they're crying and they're remembering the woman who's passed away and it is what you're talking about, this sad, good time where it is a celebration of that person's life. How do you, as a funeral director, organize things so that that happens?

OWENS: First of all, as a funeral director, you have to know the person or the history of the person that you are having a celebration for. And you have to reflect that person's life and their legacy. Each person has a uniquely different funeral, just like there's no two people with the same DNA, there's no two people that has the same funerals. The funeral is for the individual.

HEADLEE: This is part of your business practice, but it also seems to be spiritual for you, the care of these people who have passed. Let's take another listen to a comment you made in the documentary.


OWENS: I've been called to do this work by a higher power, so at the end of my life I might have failed in a lot of things. I'm going to have to stand before God, but I can check off one thing, and that's well done for the bodies.

HEADLEE: You see yourself as a tool, as God's tool. In what way are you doing God's work?

OWENS: My Bible tells me how God created man and - from the dust and made him into a person. So my specialty and my connection with spirituality and with God is that he has allowed me to reproduce what he created at the end of life, when sometimes sickness and disease has beaten the person down and he gives me the opportunity to - with my hands, to re-create what he created in the first place and to make it beautiful for the people that has to come and see it.

And there's a - in the book of Isaiah, it actually says that to give the people beautiful ashes and the garment of praise to the spirit of heaven it's in - and the spirit of joy for sadness. So that's what my calling is and that's what I have to do.

HEADLEE: When you were very, very young, it was - seemed clear to, not only yourself, but your whole family, that you were going to become a funeral director. I think your mother wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea, but she talks about you burying a matchstick.

OWENS: The first funeral I staged was at five years old. So by the time I was 10 years old, I was able to create the funeral with the beer can casket with the flowers and with the people and all of the other extras. The first funeral was just a simple matchstick in the ground with some flowers laying on top of the earth and from then I, kind of, kept building it up to - I guess where it is now.

HEADLEE: What is it that fascinates you? I mean, as a kid, I imagine that no other children that you knew were staging funerals for dead animals or anyone else that they'd found or were burying them.

OWENS: I guess it was just naturally me. You know, I was inquisitive. I wanted to know. So each chance I got to be at a funeral or around a funeral I would record everything in my head so that I could reproduce that same setting when I'm having my own little, personal funerals.

HEADLEE: Now I understand that the care that you now take with the cosmetology, the way that you make the body look, that - that came from practice and some mistakes. What happened early on in your business to help you realize how important that portion was?

OWENS: Well, when I was doing my internship, actually, I pretty much was interested in preserving the body and that kind of stuff. But there was a lady that passed away at her residence and when I had to prepare her, she just looked so mean and I kind of wanted to make her smile, and I did the wrong thing and she looked even worse after I tried to make her smile.

But after that, I learned how to do the smile, and how to make people look pleasant, and how to restore people, and how to cosmetize them, and how to do the nails, and how to make the clothes fit right. And by the time I was 21 years old, I kind of had it down pretty good. I was good.

HEADLEE: Clients come to you and they sometimes discuss what they will want at their own funerals, making plans for their own ceremonies, and some people are surprised at the level of detail that you go to in your planning.

One client you had was Linda Williams-Miller, also known as Red. She came and met with you. She'd been sick. She didn't want to leave it as a burden for her children. So let's take a listen to the meeting that you had with her.


OWENS: Let's get this hair color down, just in case you don't get the chance to get your hair done before the time comes. What is the color of the dress you got?


OWENS: Red on red? And that's a rinse or a dye?

WILLIAMS MILLER: A dye. I didn't know you do all of that - you ask all of that, all. So I didn't know.

OWENS: You can't talk after you're gone.

HEADLEE: Some of the people that you've prepared in your documentary look amazing. I mean, you tend to - as you're talking about - their manicures, you dye their hair if you have to. Tell me about these conversations and what kind of things you find out or ask people for when you're planning ahead.

OWENS: I explain to them that the last thing that people remember about us is our funeral service. So when you're doing it yourself, you can make sure that you have the right colors and all of the things that you would like, as opposed to passing away and leaving it for other people to make decisions for you that if you was alive, you might not like.

HEADLEE: Have you made these plans for yourself?

OWENS: I have.

HEADLEE: Can you tell me what you have planned for your own service?

OWENS: I want to have a public viewing at Mount Olive Baptist Church across the street from the funeral home, for possibly, two days. And, on the third day, I would like to have my procession to go from 121st Street, the funeral home, to Riverside Church, and I'm being responsible for 12 cars of flowers for myself.

HEADLEE: Twelve cars of flowers?

OWENS: Twelve cars of flowers that I want to - I'm buying for me. And then I hope that I have maybe 20 more flowers, cars, that other people give me. I just love flowers and I want a lot of flowers. And I want to have the military case on, with the six white horses.

And I also would like to have a riderless horse with my cane and my top hat and my boots, take it and put it on the horse that nobody rides, and just take the cane and stick it in the saddle and stick it up, and put the hat on the cane, and then have the boots thrown across the horse's back.

HEADLEE: You take great care with the cosmetology portion at this point. Who's going to take care of you after you've passed?

OWENS: My children. They'll make sure that I'm presentable and good and if I can't be, then they know that they should close the casket and still have the same kind of a ceremony.

HEADLEE: Isaiah Owens is a funeral director in Harlem. He's the subject of a film "Homegoings," a documentary that airs on PBS on Monday night. Owens joined us from a studio in New York. Mr. Owens, thank you so much.

OWENS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.