My mom told me years ago that she would like a jazz band at her graveside when she dies. I honestly don’t remember her ever listening to jazz but I do know she has always been visual and wonder if that picture of musicians at the gravesite was more interesting to her than the music. Regardless, it will be a beautiful touch for an artsy woman when her time comes.
Wakes and funerals tend to be sad and somber occasions. The body in the casket looks pasty, most people still wear black. The music tends to be mournful although the eulogies are often interesting and funny. Thankfully, everything winds down at the reception: good food, drink and memories. I think that light is coming to the dark world of funerals. It seems that more people are realizing that a funeral is a life event and therefore, a celebration.
I have experienced a number of deaths in the past few months and have noticed the different ways people send off their loved ones. Some plan a quiet family weekend celebration at home and others like to throw a big shindig, like my large Irish-inspired family. Some people do nothing. I recently flew back east to attend my Aunt Virginia’s funeral. She went to school at The Fashion Institute of Technology and was a textile designer back in the day. She had a visual flair and saw herself and events around her as opportunities to be creative.
My cousins were touched that I flew out for the funeral and especially excited by my attire, a very bold pink ensemble. It was then that I noticed that all of the male family members were wearing orange ties and the women had on bright orange outfits. This was my aunt’s favorite color and her family chose to honor her that way. Apparently my pink was in the same spirit and my cousins felt the creative connection. There was a celebratory and performative aspect to the ceremony as I watched the sea of orange process down the aisle.
I have no idea why I find funeral stories interesting but I do. I think my mom’s jazz trio request is intriguing and the fact that her mother met my grandfather at a wake just strengthens that connection. Perhaps it is my favorite children’s story, The Beloved Dearly by Doug Cooney, which I listened to with my kids on a long road trip. Or it could be that a Harlem mortician keeps popping up on my radar screen.
The Beloved Dearly is a great book about twelve-year-old, Ernie, who is a wheeler-dealer. After getting in trouble for reselling fast food at school for a profit, he starts a pet funeral business. His business grows and he is burying all manner of animals. He learns that the more bells and whistles he offers the bereaved, the better his business. He’s got his friend Dusty building coffins and Tony digging graves but the icing on the cake is Swimming Pool, his professional crier.
Eleven years ago, I read an article about Isaiah Owens. He is a mortician in Harlem whose funeral home’s motto is “Where beauty softens your grief.” He literally transforms his clients’ loved ones into works of art. Owens always knew he wanted to be a mortician and performed his first funeral at five and began building coffins for dead animals by eleven. He traveled to New York City at seventeen to train to be a mortician. He has been preparing loved ones for their homegoing for most of his life. For those of you who don’t know, a homegoing is a black church tradition whose focus is on the celebration of a person’s life rather than getting them buried. There is a lot of singing, jokes, memories and laughing. It is often held at night, whereas a funeral happens in the morning.”
One could argue that Owens makes his clients look better in death than in life! The photographer, Elizabeth Heyert was so taken with his transformation of these people from corpses to memorials of themselves that she photographed and wrote a book about Mr. Owens’s clients called The Travelers.
Mr. Owens is truly an artist. Artists take things, events, materials, words, music, dance, theater, and film and stretch the limits of those medium’s possibilities. They enhance what is already there. Artists make you look at things differently. When a person of artistic bent is involved in a putting on a funeral, they bring it to another level. Put death into the hands of a creative and you’ve got a celebration of the person’s life!
In Rite of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life by Campbell Robertson and Frances Bobles in The New York Times, Mr. Louis Charbonnet of Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans takes preparing his clients one step further by posing them in real life scenes, complete with cans of beer and cigarettes!
I thought the Irish did it up pretty well until I read Pageantry offers relief – and respect by Nita Lelyveld in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. It was then that I realized that the black community has the Irish beat in the celebrating the life of the dead. Candy Boyd, the director of Boyd Funeral Home in Los Angeles, has professional pallbearers working for her. They don’t just carry the casket in and out of the church. They dance it in! They are dressed immaculately in top hats and tails. Their choreographed performance adds a festive element. She recently added speakers to the outside of her hearse to blast gospel music on the way to the church. Getting everyone in the spirit a little earlier.
After reading the Trib article I thought I’d check in with Google to see what Mr. Owens was up to. It seems that like any truly talented artist, he has been discovered! Last year, Homegoings, an award-winning documentary film by Christine Turner was released. It explores the African-American funeral business through the eyes of Isaiah Owens. It was released in 2013 and is currently enjoying screenings around the country.
I don’t like to think about dying, but when I do, ship me to Isaiah Owen’s Funeral Home in Harlem, NY! I want him to make me look beautiful and create a pink spectacle celebration for my family and friends, for my homegoing.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer who always wears pink. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com