“Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man – but a seed – which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us.”
– Ossie Davis’s eulogy for Malcolm X (27 February 1965)
[*NOTE: for those curious, no graphic imagery is shown anywhere in the film. All deceased are intentionally kept out of frame, save for the occasional washed hand or styled hair.]
The opening credits have barely finished before we see mortician James Bryant set down his coffee to begin his first session of the day. The deceased, he tells us, is a man named Clayton. James knew Clayton very well and had just seen him over the holidays.
“That’s how it is sometimes,” James muses. When you’ve been the primary mortician for a tight-knit community for several decades, it’s inevitable that your clientele will include the names and faces of people you knew all too well. Before the film is done, James will service a close friend of the family whom he’d known since childhood. Her request, her daughter tells us, was that James personally tend to her body and funeral arrangements.
The old saying goes that the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. That’s not true; there are plenty of ways to avoid paying taxes (just look at the two infamous tax cheats currently battling over the title of “world’s richest”), but no technological advancement has found a way around death (though the intersection between the two is fascinating to ponder). It’s why the Greek myths considered Hades the most cunning of those who ruled creation: his brothers Zeus and Poseidon got the heavens and the sea, respectively, but Hades got the underworld, where all souls wind up eventually.
One would think then that James Bryant’s line of work is the one with guaranteed job security. Not so, this film posits. Between an increasingly corporate market and gentrified demographics, the idea of an independently-owned funeral parlor is becoming a rarity. Point in fact, the film opens with the following quote from The Houston Chronicle: “In 1953, Ebony magazine reported there were 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors across the country. Today, there are about 1,200.”
But the film is not all lamentation about the changing world around us, though its subject makes those observations often. The film, just over an hour long, gives us insight into this man who has dedicated his life to giving his community’s dignity in death.
One might find it odd, but James recalls as a child how he’d yearned to be a funeral director, holding services for dead pets and insects with his bike as a makeshift hearse. At age 18, he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, where he developed a first-person relationship with death and an addiction to opium. He eventually conquered his addiction and began assisting his mortician mentor, his Uncle Eddie.
Having lived through the Jim Crow South, James recalls how the funeral director was not only a welcome presence in the Black community, but a vital one. Since Black citizens were forbidden from using white-owned parlors and cemeteries, it was an honor for Black funeral homes to be entrusted with the final appearance for a beloved community member.
The film documents James – winner of National Embalmer of the Year – as he mentors up-and-coming morticians AnneMarie (Latina) and Clarence (Black). James’ instruction goes beyond mere memorization of preservation chemicals; it also covers the even-more-delicate process of communicating with family members. Boilerplate sayings like “Have a nice day” or even “Good morning” are discouraged. “My mother died this morning,” says James, portraying the bereaved, “what’s so ‘good’ about it?”
The film-makers understandably give Clarence more coverage, as he’s James current Black student and therefore the one whom James hoped would better appreciate the necessity of a small Black-owned parlor. However, the openly-Gay Clarence has always felt like an outside amongst other Blacks due to his sexuality. He welcomes the gentrification around him as he thinks it brings about and open-mindedness he’s found lacking. (When asked, James says he “doesn’t agree” with Clarence’s homosexuality, “but who am I to judge?”)
What’s great about the film is how it doesn’t even try to normalize death, but does so anyway. The purpose of the film is to showcase the life of James, but since his business is funerals, normalizing death is what his life is about. We see him meeting with friends and attending the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association Expo (showcasing everything from luxury hearses to specially-scented embalming fluids) as part of his normal routine. Even his mentorship of AnnaMarie and Clarence ends, and we see him mentoring new students at the end.
James understands the world has changed for the better and worse, but his concern about corporate (white)-owned companies devouring his comes from a real place. A big operation like that will be indifferent to the work and the people James has served for the better part of his life. The last thing Black people need is another heartless white business treating us like cogs in a wheel.
The Passing On is a wonderful personal story about a man who, in his own words, wants people to be their best for the last time anyone will see them. We should all be so lucky.
The Passing On is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 70 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.