Friday, March 28, 2008

Just Like Us, Right?...

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.

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.

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.”


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.

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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