Deathwatch

A documentary on the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Home premieres at Webster University

"Does anybody have a problem today?" asks a minister overseeing a funeral service in the film. "Put it in his hands," he tells them joyfully. The choir bursts into song, keyboardists and drums pound a rhythm and mourners of all ages clap their hands, dance and sing.

"Most people don't know the purpose of a funeral," says Jones, seated on a plush sofa in his funeral home. "It is not the disposal of the body -- it is the tribute of the life."

The bodies Jones sees in his preparation room, like those he describes in the film's opening sequences, require hard labor to make that tribute a success. "When I'm able to take a body that has been traumatized and restore to norm.... People question if this person was ravaged by disease: 'Look, he looks like he's asleep.' Or they don't see the hole from the gunshot -- then I feel good.

Funeral director Ronald L. Jones: "I have an ego. Some of these bodies come here rough. If I ever have to tell a family a casket has to be closed, it's because I've done everything humanly possible to try not to close it."
Jennifer Silverberg
Funeral director Ronald L. Jones: "I have an ego. Some of these bodies come here rough. If I ever have to tell a family a casket has to be closed, it's because I've done everything humanly possible to try not to close it."

"I have an ego. Some of these bodies come here rough. If I ever have to tell a family a casket has to be closed, it's because I've done everything humanly possible to try not to close it."

Grable's camera descends into the funeral-home basement, where Jones performs his restorative art. The filmmakers have chosen to suggest Jones' craft rather than depicting it in full. A few shots are cause to grimace, however: surgical tools protruding from a corpse's throat; the slow drip of blood from a body. Watching through the lens, Grable was able to detach himself from these scenes.

Whyte worked the audio in the preparation room, so he saw events through the window of his own eyes. "I remember watching my first embalming," he says. "I felt dizzy and lightheaded, but eventually it became more natural.

"The most disturbing thing was imagining my dad being there. When that thought came into my head, I had to drop the camera and leave the room."

As grim as the subject matter may seem, Laid Outleaves the viewer wanting more. Grable and Whyte hope that as the short makes its way through film festivals, the opportunity may arise for a feature focusing on Jones.

In the meantime, the Webster premiere will include a simulated shoutin'-hallelujah home-going featuring the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Concert Choir, recording artist Michael Johnson and gospel singer David Peaston,among other performers. "We want to make the premiere like one of his funerals," says Whyte, "and since it's in a chapel [Winifred Moore Auditorium in Webster Hall], it's a perfect place."

Jones' crew will be on hand in their gold coats and black pants, the uniform Robert O'Neal Fields was so proud of.

"What I really like about the documentary," says Jones, "is, some people say, 'Robert upstaged you,' but it's not about me -- it's about the funeral business. I'm so glad that it turned out that way, because I try to stay humble.

"Robert, he made the whole thing. He made it."

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