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That's good, that's good, mutters James Bryant, a slim man with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee.
The words of the chief embalmer of The Lewis Funeral Home—the oldest Black funeral home in San Antonio—seem to agree with an unseen force that the work he is doing is not only good but, anointed. Purposeful.
He's just finished preparing the body of a friend.
"I never thought that this would be going on between me and him. That's the way it is sometimes," Bryant says, covering his friend in a crisp white sheet.
Since starting his career in 1968, Bryant has embalmed nearly 10,000 people. He is noted as one of the best—if not the outright best—embalmers in America. His ability to bring a lifelike appearance back onto the faces of the deceased is supernatural to say the least. It's as if the LORD has put to Bryant the same miraculous question he put to the Prophet Ezekiel in the wilderness: Can these bones live? Bryant has made it his life's work to answer yes.
Filmmaker Nathan Clarke follows Bryant in the intimate and somber documentary The Passing On, as the legendary embalmer and veteran of the Vietnam War trains the next generation of Black morticians and attempts to stave off the decline of Black funeral homes in the South.
Bryant's protégé is Clarence Pierre, a young gay Black man who audaciously—and rightfully so—dares to dream big about his future, but finds himself at odds with his mentor due to his inclinations to go work at non-Black funeral homes once he graduates and receives his license.
Clarence believes that reputation alone is not enough, and aspires to innovate new approaches to the funeral home business. James, however, finds this difficult to understand. Having worked through segregation and being barred from working at white funeral homes, he thinks of himself as a launchpad that has created opportunities for young Black morticians. It is obvious James is committed to the upholding of rituals and the institutions they support, while Clarence has allegiance to none.
Founded in 1909, The Lewis Funeral Home and other Black funeral parlors like it have served not only as pillars of comfort, but also of economic stability for Black residents in Southern cities. In Clarke's documentary, we reckon with an alarming statistic laid out by The Houston Chronicle: In 1953, there were roughly 3,000 Black-owned funeral parlors across the country. Now there are less than half that.
"There was a time where morticians were a cornerstone of the community; helping families who were short on burial expenses and even sharing with families information in the case of police misconduct or other scenarios that may not initially be vocalized, " said the film's producer Lana Garland.
Coupled with the crushing number of deaths due to COVID-19, the need for rituals and loving hands to care for our dead is now more desperate than ever. Both Garland and Clarke have lost family members to the virus, which gives The Passing On an entirely new valence. As he glances across the room to the box holding his father-in-law's ashes, Clarke weighs on the phone, "What is the impact of not being able to memorialize our dead? What happens when we are not allowed our typical ways of mourning? Do we lose something when we are not able to come together?" Throughout the pandemic, families have not had the opportunity to grieve and find solace among each other, leaving them to wrestle with unimaginable sorrow. Truly, we are still learning what the long term effects of the recent pandemic will cost us.
Working on The Passing On has expanded the filmmakers' already vast appreciation for Black embalmers, those like James Bryant, who tend to the bodies of our loved ones; holding their hands when we go home, placing a smooth coat of polish on fingernails or maybe adjusting a once favorite tie, all while their businesses are slowly being swallowed by gentrification and rifts within a changing community and time.
Intergenerational woes and triumphs remain the documentary's cornerstone. As James reckons with his own mentor and uncle, Eddie Bryant's decline in health, he is forced to come to terms with the reality that the very profession he loves is also dying off. Eddie took James under his wing after he returned from Vietnam, refusing to give up on him and guiding him throughout the profession that would change the trajectory of his life as it provided financial stability and a purpose. A steady theme of second chances and revitalization constantly rises to the surface as The Passing On insists upon the ubiquity of life cycles and struggles, and the possibility of reconciliation. The strange allure of the film is its ability to advocate for upholding the foundation of certain traditions while challenging the validity and necessity of others.
An uncomfortable scene in the film shows James comparing his battle with drug abuse to Clarence's sexuality, stating that he does not believe that his protégé's lifestyle is right, but admitting that he has no room to judge. For many, it could be a startling and offensive scene, but Garland says the moment is an honest one, and that it allows for much needed conversations to be had. "Some of my queer friends acknowledged that there was something strange and untrue about the dialogue between Clarence and James, until they were allowed to see the full display of each individual's belief about the other and themselves," Garland said.
As a Black and queer man myself, I am confronted often with similar judgments. And such judgments, when shared, can lead to violence or death and finally to James Bryant's embalming table.
Can these queer bones live?
Nevertheless, despite moments like these, care is the glue that allows the two to coexist and learn from one another. "I hope other people consider the places we are passing on things and the transformational power of dwelling in a place without the need to translate it; passing on traditions and allowing for beauty to be seen in unfamiliar places," said the director.
Clarke hopes the film raises questions about reinvigorating Black funeral homes and prompts us to imagine what other establishments are slipping slowly out of our peripheral. It is a clarion call to Black folks, by way of Black folks, to ask what we will do to slow the erasure of our sacred spaces. Do we believe these bones can live? And if we do, will we follow the lead of James and Clarence in forging both traditional and new ways to tend to the bodies within our communities? How do we allow ourselves to participate in grieving what was while also doing something with what is? Can these bones live: The traditions? The buildings? The community?
Moving out from helplessness and despair and into something lighter, a joy that is intensified because one has suffered, our communities continue to pay homage and connect with a larger collective force, agreeing with us: That's good, that's good.
When asked about the biggest reward in working on the film, Garland unapologetically says standing with her community, meaning Black people. In a world where life is fragile—Black life even more so—the film's protagonist reminds us "that from birth, the dash between the tombstone is what matters. It's about what's happening between. Leaving something negative or positive around; the passing on."
The Passing On is a part of Reel South's 2021, series and is available for viewing for free online through this Sunday July 25. Watch here.