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Harlem Undertaker Softens Grief

Isaiah Owens staged his first funeral at age 5, burying a matchstick in a casket made from an empty beer can lined with toilet paper. As he grew older, his passion blossomed and he began to hold real funerals, including one for a neighbor’s beloved dog.

While others found owens’ curiosity with death and its traditions unnerving, the Branchville native said he had simply found his calling in life.

The film will have its world premiere during a screening thursday, feb. 28, at new york’s museum of modern art. “homegoings” will be featured in the international selections section of “documentary fortnight 2013,” the moma’s annual showcase of recent nonfiction film and media.

The documentary is also part of “MoMA Selects: POV,” an homage to the Public Broadcasting System’s longest-running showcase for independent nonfiction film. “Homegoings” will make its broadcast premiere on PBS’s “POV” this summer.

Owens said he hopes viewers also gain a sense of their own mortality, and that the realization leads them to express their wishes while they still can rather than leaving their grieving loved ones to make those final decisions.

“African-American people died with the belief in the resurrection, so the excitement over the resurrected body is one of the things that really kinds of helps,” he said. “As a Christian person, I believe that Jesus Christ died and was buried and resurrected. I think he took the sting out of death at that par- ticular time for me and other people.

The filmmaker said she contacted Owens after reading an article about him in the New York times. turner said she was intrigued by the man who has spent more than four decades not only caring for the dead, but for those left behind, as well.

The film harkens back to a time when blacks were refused service at white funeral homes and subsequently had to find ways to honor their dead. In the film, Owens demonstrates the historical traditions among african-american undertakers, who took pride in caring for their own.

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