Homegoings: PBS Film Ignites End-of-Life Conversations
Cleveland screening of Homegoings inspired conversations on end-of-life, death, and dying
eFuneral hosted a film screening of the PBS film Homegoings on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at the Cleveland Public Library, Martin Luther King branch for an intimate look at the rarely seen world of undertaking. Following the hour-long documentary, which beautifully depicts the impact of tradition, culture, and history on death rituals, more than 60 audience members engaged in a Q&A Skype session with the film’s director, Christine Turner as well as a post-film discussion with funeral director, Marcella Cox, memorial advisor, Anna Ferro, estate planning attorney, LaVerne Boyd, and Pastor, Reverend Dr. Todd Davidson.
The film, Homegoings
Homegoings begins with a statement by funeral director, Isaiah Owens: “When it comes to death and funerals, African-American people, we have our own way … And everybody know[s] that it’s going to be a sad, good time.” In every community, there exist traditions around life-cycle events, including death. Through the eyes of a Harlem funeral director, we learn about those traditions and rituals in the African-American community.
Mr. Owens’ life, as well as his livelihood, is seeped in history. Born in South Carolina to Willie Mae and, sharecropper, Clifton Owens, Isaiah grew up among people who made their living picking cotton. When a loved one died, the community came together to care for the deceased, to send the deceased “home,” where they would be free from injustice, free from cancer, and free from pain. The black funeral director was a friend and would accept promissory notes from families who could not pay until the cotton was ready.
Mr. Owens described African-American death rituals during the era of slavery, explaining that ”when the slaves were killed . . . it wasn’t a proper funeral, but they kind of did their best. . . . When they got down in the woods, away from the slave masters . . . they came up with songs like ‘Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with my God.’” And the funeral director touched on emerging trends as well, stating that over the last 45 years more and more mom-and-pop funeral homes, each with a loyal clientele, are going out of business while, simultaneously, corporate-owned funeral homes have been on the rise. He also noted another trend: In the 1980s many of the departed were victims of violence or AIDS, whereas today people are dying of heart problems or stroke.
For Mr. Owens, caring for the dead (as well as the grieving living) is his calling. Growing up, he was fascinated with death and held burials for anything he could find. At age five, he buried a matchstick and put flowers on top of the soil. As he got older, he progressed to burying “frogs . . . chickens; I buried the mule that died. I buried the neighbor’s dog.” And now? Now Mr. Owens is trying to build a legacy – one that dates back more than a century – of the black funeral director as a pillar of the community.
Homegoings also introduced the audience to funeral planners – both those who met with Mr. Owens to make advance arrangements, as well as those who came to him with an immediate need situation. While making funeral plans was emotional for everyone, it was also inspirational. One funeral planner described the African-American funeral this way: “Homegoing. A happy occasion. . . . You’re going home to meet the ones that went on before you and they’re there waiting for you.”
Q&A with Homegoings film director, Christine Turner and discussion with industry experts
Following the film, audience members had the opportunity to explore topics around end-of-life, death, and dying with the Homegoings film director as well as a panel of industry experts. The discussion ranged from what individuals need to do to prepare (both themselves and their families) for their inevitable death, how families can balance differing views on death rituals, and ways that families can celebrate their loved ones lives upon death while staying within their budgets.
At the end of the evening, each person filled out an evaluation form asking him or her to pick a word (or words) to describe their experience that evening, and this is what they said:
“Enlightening. Informative. Interesting. Professional. Surprised. Intrigued. Educational. Good Idea. Upbeat. Positive. Essential. Relief. Life-affirming. Dynamic. Excellent. Informing. Important. Humbling. Informational. Helpful. Moving. Thought-provoking. Open-minded. Comforting. Necessary. Outstanding. Very Good. Awesome. Urgent.”
Upcoming eFuneral events
eFuneral plans to continue holding discussions, film screenings, and death cafes. The next event will be a Cleveland, LGBT-focused death cafe, which will take place in October. If you are interested in attending an upcoming event, please contact email@example.com to be added to the email list or “Like” eFuneral on Facebook for updates on the latest events.
Leah Yomtovian Roush is the Senior Manager of Strategic Development for Cleveland, Ohio-based eFuneral, a comprehensive and free online resource that enables those thinking about end-of-life to research, plan, and arrange a wide variety of funeral-related services. Leah is the editor of eFuneral's Online Resource Center, and she manages the company's marketing efforts and develops strategies for company growth. Leah also serves on the Boards of multiple non-profit organizations, helping them expand their reaches and increase their impacts.