How funeral directors cope with growing gun violence across the city

Ms. Ernestine Poole, funeral director at Poole's Funeral Chapel stands in the chapel of her Birmingham, Alabama funeral home. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )
Ms. Ernestine Poole, funeral director at Poole’s Funeral Chapel stands in the chapel of her Birmingham, Alabama funeral home. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )

 

By Nathan Turner Jr. and Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For the Birmingham Times

Take away the profession, take away the title and funeral home directors say they are no different than anyone else troubled by the growing number of homicides senselessly ending the lives of many young men in Birmingham.

“As a child of God, who would want to see another child of God, especially a parent, have to bury their child?” said Korie J. Anderson, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in West Blocton and licensed funeral director at Aubrey Bushelon Funeral Directing and Cremation in East Birmingham. “It saddens me to see a young life cut so short. … As a human being, it bothers me to see anyone lose their life over senseless things.”

Rachel Arrington, president and owner of Arrington Funeral Home Inc., said, “I shake my head all the time … because it is senseless and it is increasing. Just as a human being you shake your head and wonder, ‘Why is this happening?’ You don’t have to be related to somebody to know that this is happening in our community. You take away the profession, and it still leaves you as a concerned human being. It’s not the job that we do. It’s not the title that we carry. It’s just being a compassionate, caring individual that makes us care even more when we know that it’s senseless,” Arrington said.

Marion Sterling, president of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home near Elmwood Cemetery, said, “When you look at a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old child … riddled with bullets, what does that do to one’s spirit? We are human. … No professional gets used to seeing that.”

Mr. Marion P. Sterling, President of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home sits it the chapel of the Birmingham, Alabama funeral home. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )
Mr. Marion P. Sterling, President of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home sits it the chapel of the Birmingham, Alabama funeral home. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )

 

The number of homicides in Birmingham has increased 80 percent over the past three years and is on track this year to surpass triple digits in the city for the first time since 2006. According to official Birmingham Police Department statistics, there were 92 homicides in the city in 2016, up from 51 in 2014.

Early this year, the murders of two 17-year-old Wenonah High School students within a week shocked the city. Juzahris Webb was slain on Jan. 31 in West Birmingham, and Isaiah Johnson was shot to death on Feb. 7 near Railroad Park in the downtown area.

The violence has drawn the attention of more than elected officials and law enforcement. Funeral directors—many of whom have children and grandchildren of their own—are affected, too, as they comfort the bereaved, serve as confidantes, prepare services, and assist in the most solemn of farewells.

In interviews conducted by The Birmingham Times over several weeks, local funeral directors expressed frustration at the violence that brings young, mostly African-American men into their parlors.

“We’re averaging now at least one homicide per week,” said Anderson, earlier this month. “The violence has truly kicked up here in the Birmingham metropolitan area.”

Anderson, who has been a licensed funeral director for 20 years, said, “I’ve seen friends killed over senseless violence in the community. I’ve actually had to preach funerals of those who had been murdered and didn’t have a pastor or layperson to bring words of comfort to the family.

“I have been not only the person sitting behind a desk trying to get a grieving mother to the point where she could memorialize her child but also the person to give comforting words to the family during their time of bereavement,” he said. “I’ve had double when it comes to dealing with violence in this city.”

Words of comfort are difficult for families who lose loved ones, especially to violence.

Jacqueline Jones’ son, 26-year-old Quentin McDaniel, was killed during a robbery attempt on June 7, 2016.

What young people don’t understand, she said, is that gun violence affects far more people than just the victim.

“I don’t think they understand the depths of the impact it can have on family members,” said Jones. “When my son died, it not only took a lot from me, but it had a large impact on my other children and family members. They don’t understand that [they] took a life, which means I’ll never ever see my son again. He’ll never ever see his children raised. That hurts so bad. This is something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.”

Paul Gardner, president of Smith and Gaston Funeral Home in Titusville on Sixth Avenue, a few blocks east of Elmwood Cemetery, said he’s often at a loss for words.

“It’s been going on for a while, and it looks like maybe it’s going to continue,” he said of the violence. “It’s sad. I’ve got young men, kids, and I fear for them. It’s a tragedy. It’s something we need to get a handle on, but it seems like nobody has the answer to it. I certainly don’t.”

Sterling, of Davenport and Harris, Alabama’s oldest black-owned family business, said the overall community must impart more love, attention, and discipline to help curb violence in the city. That includes mentorship from churches, schools, civic leaders, and past gang members to educate young people and others about the consequences of criminal activity, and to teach them that crime does not pay at any level, he said.

Davenport and Harris Funeral Home was founded in 1899 and is now run by the fourth-generation of the family. The establishment has witnessed a lot of changes in Birmingham—the good and the bad.

Although the black community won a degree of freedom with the civil rights movement, it has lost much of its perspective as a caring, nurturing village that can help young people understand the effect wrong and violent decisions can have on their lives and the lives of others, Sterling added.

Ernestine Poole, funeral director at Poole Funeral Chapels Inc., says she mostly buries older people but noted that it seems that people have less respect and love for each other now than in years past.

“It is sad that people are not as caring. Plus, they don’t go to church as much. When I was growing up, people went to church even if they did not go anyplace else,” said Poole, who has directed the business since 1999.

The Reverend Dr. Jonathan McPherson, Sr. stands in his chapel at the Scott-McPherson Funeral Home in Fairfield, Alabama. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )
The Reverend Dr. Jonathan McPherson, Sr. stands in his chapel at the Scott-McPherson Funeral Home in Fairfield, Alabama. Birmingham area funeral home directors reflect on the violence plaguing the area. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times )

 

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan McPherson, co-owner of Scott-McPherson Funeral Home in Fairfield, said, “Rather than getting better, our community is getting worse. We wonder what would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. think about this violence.”

Annie Bushelon Holt, who owns the Bushelon Funeral Home Inc. in West End, said her establishment can be considered a ministry and she often quotes scripture to the bereaved.

“You feel sorry for the families and you take their problems home with you,” Holt said.