Isaiah Owens’ curiosity about funerals began at the age of five, when he buried animals on the South Carolina farm where he grew up, The first time he saw a dead body was during the funeral of his aunt; after touching her head, he knew his calling was to become a funeral director.
After attending the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City, where he graduated in 1969, Owens built a funeral home based on his signature mantra “Where beauty softens grief.” He says: “I make people look like they are all in heaven,” and he’s worked as a funeral cosmetologist for 46 years, based on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Isaiah Owens gets ready to restore a body in the basement of his funeral home in Harlem. “Beauty is important in death,” he said. “In the person’s mind death has been replaced with a new life, a nice memory for people to have, to carry.”
Owens shapes the body’s eyebrows with liner while a hairdresser, a close collaborator of his, fixes the hair to complete the look required by the family of the deceased. “When I’m doing this I’m always in Church, I’m always kind of singing on the inside,” he says.
When restoring a body, Owens asks the family for a picture in which the person looks happy and healthy, maybe during a wedding or on vacation. “I like to know about the person’s life but usually a picture tells me the story or what I need to know as far as fixing that person up,” he says. “A lot of these people that I’m working on, that I’m fixing, are people I know very well.”
“I’m in this place where it’s just me and the body,” he says. “Funerals are always on my head.”
A set of make-up used during one of the restorations. Owens applies different color foundations, lipsticks and eyeliners to complete the look.
Before fixing the face, the hair and dressing the person, Owens carefully injects the face with a solution that helps it maintain a natural, living look.
Owens applies some foundation to the face as a starting point of the make-up portion of the restoration.
Owens rushes between restorations and meetings with clients requesting the funeral home’s services.
Many of his clients have lived in the neighborhood and know Owens for his work as an embalmer and restorative artist.
Owens also oversees every detail of the funeral itself, the decoration of the chapel and the flowers. After putting the body in the casket, he fixes small details and retouches the make-up of his clients.
Owens works on a body restoration at the third floor of his funeral home, where the chapel is located.
Owens puts the final touches on one of his clients before setting up the casket at the chapel, located on the third floor of his funeral home. “When you are dead your mouth might be open, your eyes are open and then I got to put you to sleep,” he says. “But then when I put you to sleep, I put you to sleep with a smile on your face.”
Owens checks every detail when restoring a body. Many times, he will even fix the nails of the person by doing a quick manicure to complete the look.
He chooses to use a pink eye shadow that matches the nails and the white suit. “For these people, especially for the Christian people, they see the actual resurrection right here in my funeral home,” he says.
Owens finishes up the look with a necklace. “It’s not just a beautiful face, it’s a beautiful body. It’s everything,” he says. “It’s fixing the face, making sure the hands are just right, making sure that the clothes are just right and you just have to stand back and you have to work it until you got it perfect.”
Owens looks for some make-up. In the casket, he keeps some pictures the family gave him as a reference to achieve the right look.
Everything is ready for the funeral. “For your earthly exit here on earth, I’ll make you look like you are in heaven,” he says.
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Isabel Riofrío is a freelance journalist and a master’s candidate at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has been published in Diario El Comercio, a prominent newspaper in Ecuador, City Limits and the NPR program LatinoUSA.