On average, Kenneth Dupree of Dupree Funeral Home at 28th and Diamond streets sees one to two victims of gun violence a year. Bruce Talbert says Talbert Funeral Parlor at 22nd near Lehigh has received 10 so far.
The services for the victims that both men preside over have all been young people, usually in their early 20s. Talbert says he’s not surprised when gunshot victims come through the door, but it doesn’t get any easier.
“It’s not an everyday occurrence, but it’s not something that alarms us when it happens,” the Chester native said. “When I was growing up, you handled things with your hands. [Young people now] handle things with guns, so it’s not something that catches you off guard to get a call from a family that someone has passed from a shooting incident.”
With anyone who has passed — but specifically with those of gun violence — the family conferences that follow with funeral directors can be highly emotional. It’s during these conferences that both the director and the family have a chance to meet and discuss not only what arrangements they would like for the departed, but also speak about who the person was they just lost. Without any warnings and without any goodbyes, a person is instantly taken away with the firing of a gun. It is a traumatic experience.
“You hear parents say a lot that they don’t expect to bury their child,” Talbert said. “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”
When someone dies of natural causes, it’s typically the spouse or grown children attending the family conference. But when someone is fatally shot, it’s often the parents who show up.
Dupree said of the difference: “You see signs, even if they die suddenly. Even if you have someone who has died of a massive heart attack, they can remember over the past two months he wasn’t himself. They have something to at least hang their tag on that he was sick, but we didn’t know he was that sick. That kind of mindset.”
In the neighborhoods Talbert serves, this year alone there have been 27 homicides involving young men. Closer to Dupree’s neighborhood, in the 22nd District, the number is 14. As of this past Sunday, the city has recorded 286 victims of homicide. Philadelphia’s homicide rate has ticked up, and gun violence is often at the center of the crisis.
“It’s not necessarily overwhelming, but there are these things that are done that may not be done for someone who has died naturally,” Dupree said. “For instance, I had a homicide death and the person was shot very violently, shot in the face and we had to do reconstructive work.”
Before the funeral parlor
At Temple University hospital, Dr. Amy Goldberg and trauma outreach coordinator Scott Charles lead a hospital-based violence prevention program called Cradle to Grave, with the goal of reaching and teaching at-risk youth about the effects of gun violence to prevent the funeral parlor scenes like the one Dupree described.
They try to humanize the experience by telling stories in hopes of unpacking many issues that contribute to gun violence. Goldberg and Charles are often the first to have the tough conversations that funeral home operators like Dupree and Talbert experience regularly.
Goldberg and Charles have been recognized nationally for their work, and their efforts have been written about extensively, particularly in the wake of so many recent mass shootings. But the pair’s work is focused on the people who often don’t make the news.
They tell the story of Lamont Adams, a 16-year-old gunshot victim, who was shot in September 2004 near the home he shared with his grandmother. The Strawberry Mansion High School junior was taken to Temple University Hospital where he died a short time later.
“I’ll tell you, it’s pretty humbling as you stand in front of [students] and you talk to them about Lamont and what we all did in the trauma bay to save him, and then their questions are, ‘How do you deal with this?’” Goldberg said. “It’s really very humbling to hear these kids who we’re trying to reach out and educate, to ask if we’re doing okay.”
Letting families tell their stories
“I think there’s the notification and then there’s the counselling and each has its challenges. After the patient dies, whether that’s in the trauma bay or after operation, the families just want to know if their loved is alive or dead,” Goldberg said. “They really just want to hear the news as quickly as possible. Of course that’s very challenging, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, because so many of these victims are young kids.”
Charles said somewhere around half of the gunshot victims at Temple University are 25 and younger, aligning with what Talbert and Dupree see in the shooting services they preside over.
Being a funeral director has shaped Dupree’s views on death, he knows that individuals need to prepare for it both emotionally and financially.
“There’s no difference in violence. Violence is violence, but violence is a community problem. It is a community problem. When somebody becomes the victim of violence the entire community is affected,” Dupree said. “You have to look at the context of death. You have to look at the context of death and that plays a role in the arrangements and the dynamic of how you handle a family.”
When Dupree does reconstructive work on a victim, for example, he has to prepare the family and help them process. “I had to have a viewing for the family before the person was dressed and put into a casket so that they have time to accept the fact that this happened,” he explained. “That was at their request, and that viewing took an hour and a half and then we had to have the viewing prior to the service. That viewing took an hour and a half. So here we have three hours, in addition, that I would not have ordinarily spent with a family who had a natural death.”
No two homicides are the same, he explained. Different people are coming to the table, different circumstances and different victims, which is why it’s important to listen to a family’s story. Loved ones often choose to share personal stories about the victim, not concentrating on any negative activity the victim may have been involved in, but instead highlight the positive aspect of their life.
“There’s no blanket way to handle a homicide or accident arrangement,” Dupree said. “ You can go to the arrangement but nothing will be understood because their story hasn’t been told. So you allow families to express their story and they will openly express it. They will openly tell you what their story is.”