PBS Premiere: June 24, 2013Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

Isaiah Owens is the quintessential self-made man. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up among people who made their living picking cotton. When a loved one died, he says, relatives "would sign a promissory note that when the cotton is ready this year, that they would come back and pay. The black funeral director wound up being a friend, somebody in the community that was stable, appeared to have means."

But neither Owens nor his mother, Willie Mae Owens-Ross, who today works as a receptionist at his other funeral parlor, in Branchville, South Carolina, can completely account for Owens' fascination with burials, even as a boy. When Isaiah Owens was five, he buried a matchstick and put flowers on top of the soil. After that he progressed to burying "frogs... chickens; I buried the mule that died. I buried the neighbor's dog, and the dog's name was Snowball." Owens-Ross says with a smile, "Anything that he find dead, he buried. Can't even think where he got it from.... But that was his calling."

In 1968, this calling took then 17-year-old Owens to New York City, where he learned his craft. A few years later, he opened what would become one of Harlem's most popular funeral homes. When he is dressing and beautifying the dead, he shows a dedication to craft and attention to detail that exemplify Owens Funeral Home's motto: "where beauty softens your grief." When talking with bereaved families, he is entirely focused on the members' individual needs. (He seems to remember the name of everyone he's ever buried, including Snowball.)

Owens has earned a number of awards over the years for his contributions to the community, and plaques of appreciation line the walls of his establishment. The most recent was received from his peers in the first district of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

Caption: Isaiah Owens in front of his funeral home in Harlem, New York.
Credit: Marshall Stief