Deathwatch

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

The opening frame contains the gaunt face of the terminally ill Robert O'Neal Fields. He talks about why he worked in the funeral business, why he chose an occupation that kept him close to the part of life most people want to avoid. He's weary as he speaks, the light in his eyes has dimmed, but he expresses confidence, speaks with assurance, with pride. Fields knows where he's going, knows how he'll be when he's laid out.

A few frames later, Ronald L. Jones stands over a body and describes the death state of one young woman: "Twenty-three-year-old female, bludgeoned to death, multiple gashes to the head and face," then similarly describes a man: "Thirty-five-year-old male, suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the head and upper body."

Jones does not express a cold detachment as he analyzes the insults death brought to these people; rather, he reveals the studied gaze of a craftsman. What must he do to bring this body peace?

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."

Laid Out: Life and Death Inside an American Funeral Home, which premieres at Webster University at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, began as a documentary on the funeral industry, but after first-time filmmakers Tom Grable and Doug Whyte realized the wealth of material they had found in the first funeral home they visited -- the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Home, near the intersection of Delmar and Skinker boulevards, and its charismatic director -- they shifted their focus. The result is a 24-minute short-subject film with aspirations toward a full-length documentary.

Jones inspires such ambitions. On any given day he may be sporting his Yves St. Laurent glasses, a purple suit and matching purple shoes. The name "Ronald" wraps around his wrist in the form of a gold-and-diamond bracelet. A huge square of gold with diamond insets decorates one finger. He'll probably be smoking a long, thick cigar. He's affable, gregarious and open -- brimming with stories, a documentarian's dream.

With more than 100 hours of footage, Grable and Whyte confess, they wish they had come to focus on Jones earlier in the process. Grable edited a 54-minute version of Laid Out that included Peter Burla, a funeral director in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Burla was a striking contrast to the flamboyant and ultrabusy Jones. Whereas Jones may work as many as six funerals in a day, Grable and Whyte had lots of footage of Burla reading the newspaper and fishing -- not too many people living and dying in Ironwood, Mich. But on seeing the Jones/Burla version, most people -- including Jones -- told the filmmakers that the best story was the man in St. Louis.

Grable and Whyte took on the funeral industry as a subject without a narrative. "We really didn't have much of a story and hoped a story would develop," says Whyte, who lives in St. Louis. Grable lives in Milwaukee, where they both lived when they started the project in 1998. An RFT feature story on funeral homes [Silva, "Buried Treasures," Feb. 12, 1997] led them to Jones' door.

Laid Out's eventual narrative focus emerged through happenstance. When Grable and Whyte came to Jones' funeral home to shoot footage of the casket room, they met Fields. Within minutes, Fields agreed to be interviewed. Whyte remembers the remarkable character of Jones' former assistant, "accepting his fate and coming in that day to check out the casket Ronald had chosen for him. It was a really moving interview." Before encountering Fields, says Whyte, "we felt we had been observing from the outside, but now we were at the center of a person's dying."

"He's still missed," says Jones, a man who sees death every day but nevertheless must check his emotions when he speaks of his late friend and associate. "There will never be another Robert."

Jones appears dapper even when he comes to the door with his shirttail out and his sleeves rolled up, back late from the cemetery. He heads upstairs and returns a few minutes later in a black suitcoat and gold tie. Seated in a comfortable waiting room, he reminisces about Fields: "He just loved the funeral business. It wasn't about money for him; it was about pride, dignity."

Fields wanted "one of those shoutin'-hallelujah home-goings," says Jones, who paid out of his own pocket for a $20,000 custom-made casket. "When he saw it, he said, 'I'm all right now.' He was ready for the process to begin. He kept saying to me, 'You're showing me. You're showing me.'"

Grable and Whyte capture that scene in Laid Out, which is remarkable for its intimate look into the most private of subjects. Grable positioned himself between a floral display and the casket to capture Jones holding the hand of Fields' mother as she took her last look at her son. "I tell people that's always the shot that was strongest for me," says Grable.

Jones was the first to ask bereaved families whether they would grant the filmmakers access. Whyte figures about two-thirds of the families agreed to be filmed. "Many of them approached the idea of the film as a tribute to the dead," he says. Whyte believes an African-American cultural perspective -- most of Jones' clientele is black -- affected the families' decision to be filmed. "The culture is more into celebrating life during death," Whyte says. "At funeral services, people are dancing in the aisles."

"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.

"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 Out leaves 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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