Deadly Business

Gary Fields, Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2008

Clarence Glover has a surveillance camera in the chapel of his funeral home. Joseph Garr sometimes carries a revolver in his hearse. Carl Swann Jr. is contemplating leaving the business.

The three directors of black funeral parlors here have been assaulted at services and each has had gunshots fired during burials. Concealed-weapons, pre-funeral intelligence briefings, cameras, panic buttons and armed security guards are becoming as much a part of services as the eulogy.

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Across the country, black morticians are changing the way they operate. The reason: a spike in African-American murders—and the violence that sometimes follows victims to the grave. In an echo of more volatile parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, African-American morticians report seeing an increase in violent behavior, and occasional killings, at funerals.

The violation of the once-sacrosanct funeral is one byproduct of a little-noticed upswing in the murder rate of African-Americans. The number of blacks killed in America, mostly by other blacks, has been edging up at a time when the rate for other groups has been flat or falling.

As a result, the black murder-victim toll exceeds that of the far larger white population. According to the most recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of whites murdered dropped slightly, to 6,956 from 7,005 between 2004 and 2006. The number of blacks killed rose 11%, to 7,421 from 6,680.

African-Americans, who make up 13% of the population, have long had a higher homicide rate than other groups. And the total number of black murders is still significantly lower than in the early 1990s, when the U.S. was hit by a wave of drug-related killings. At that time, though, “funeral homes used to be the most respected places you could walk into beside the church,” says Jeff Gardner, a co-owner of A.D. Porter & Sons in Louisville, Ky., and a third-generation undertaker. “Nobody respects life and the young folks nowadays don’t mind dying.”

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Rising Incidence of Violence

Last year, the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association—a black trade group—held a panel discussion at its Philadelphia convention about the rising incidence of violence on funeral premises. Among some strategies recommended: increasing security and not publicizing funerals.

Since 2006, police in Boston, Goldsboro, N.C., Louisville, Los Angeles and St. Louis have investigated black murders that occurred at or immediately after funeral services. Of five cases reviewed for this article, four were at the funerals of other murder victims. Two were gang related. One was a revenge killing. Two remain unexplained.

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If a funeral has the possibility of “drama,” as he puts it, Mr. Glover hires security at $25 to $50 an hour per guard. He also assembles his staff two hours prior to a wake for a briefing. “We have a meeting so you know who is who, what to look for and watch out for each other,” he says.

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According to the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, the average cost of an African-American funeral is about $4,500. In many cases, the specter of violence is driving costs up. In Cincinnati, security firms make regular appearances at services, adding as much as $500 to the bill. Surveillance systems can cost $2,000 or more just to install.

“We’ve had to alternate funeral procession routes because we have been tipped off,” says Duane Weems, president of Elite Protective Services, a local security firm. “Attendees to the church service will tell us that this gang is waiting down there.”

Since funerals and wakes draw family and friends of the deceased, they also provide a ready stage for anyone with violent intentions toward the mourners.

Family and friends of Frank Sherley Jr., who died at the age of 70 of natural causes, were arriving at A.D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home in Louisville for his wake May 21, 2006. It was “a perfect day,” recalls John Curd, an employee there that Sunday evening. “There was no expectation of violence.”

At services for Mr. Sherley, two gunmen appeared in the parking lot and began firing. Mr. Curd dialed 911. He recalls thinking: “This isn’t supposed to be happening at a funeral home.” One man was killed and four other people were wounded. Police say they don’t have a motive and the crime is unsolved.

Mr. Swann, of Cincinnati, says his family has been burying the dead since the early 1900s. “I caught the school bus in front of the funeral home and I got off the bus in front of the funeral home,” he says. Now, at age 37, he’s thinking of getting out of the business.

One particularly harrowing experience was the funeral of Raeshaun Hand Jr. The ex-convict had continued to deal drugs after being released from prison, according to police, and was wanted at the time of his murder. Mr. Hand, 27, was found shot inside his car in February 2005.

Mr. Hand’s father tried to keep the service private, but word got out. The father stood guard at the church door, trying to limit access. Some mourners made it in, drinking and smoking in the church bathroom, Mr. Swann says. Later as he prepared to close the casket, a large group rushed inside, pinning the undertaker.

“One dude punched me in front of the casket. The dead man’s son was there and he got punched and his father was punched. My professionalism went out the window,” Mr. Swann says. “I started fighting back, throwing punches. This wasn’t in the job description and it doesn’t come with the job.”

Evacuation Plan

Debora Kellom, director of Wade Funeral Home in St. Louis and a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, similarly recalls how a fight broke out during the wake of a murder victim in January. Word spread that there were guns present. Panic erupted. Ms. Kellom ordered the casket closed, moved everyone outside and called 911.

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In some cases, police are shadowing mourners. On the West Coast, funeral directors are now working closely with the Los Angeles Police Department, from planning procession routes that avoid gang territory to coordinating burials so rivals aren’t interred in the same cemeteries at the same time.

Detective Sal LaBarbera, a homicide supervisor with the LAPD, says the department routinely attends high-risk funerals to offer security and gather intelligence.

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Anthony Felder, of Los Angeles’s Spalding Mortuary, says he routinely faxes basic information to the police if he’s handling a homicide case. He also faxes images of tattoos on the body to help the police identify gang members—and assess any specific risks associated with the deceased. The police in return send plainclothes officers for security.

In St. Louis, Ms. Kellom, 43, says she has gone so far as to ask that the local police department set up a substation inside her facility. She argues that such an arrangement would give her establishment—and the neighborhood—a much-needed, visible police presence. She has promised a body-free zone for officers, who she expects will soon be dropping by on a regular basis to monitor the area.

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