Mourning in Chicago

A funeral home’s business is growing, for all the wrong reasons.

Almost four score years old, Leak & Sons Funeral Home, on Cottage Grove Avenue, is something of an institution on Chicago’s South Side. (In 1964, for example, it was the site of the funeral for crooner Sam Cooke.) It is also something of a barometer for murder, much to the dismay of Spencer Leak Sr., the proprietor: he buried at least 56 homicide victims between January 1 and August 1, too many of them much closer to 18 than to 80. Last year, he buried 85 homicide victims in all, the vast majority of them kids, 37 Chicago public-school students, almost all of them African American or Hispanic, killed in the 2008–09 school year, up from 27 the year before.

One warm, sunny Saturday, mourners stream in for two funerals for two homicide victims in chapels across the hall from each other. In one chapel, Brandon Earl Little, 19, lies in a wooden casket, wearing a Chicago White Sox baseball cap. Across the hall, Jessica Sade Wesson, 18, is laid out in a white ruffled blouse, her hands folded under a sheer white cloth. Wesson was found behind a middle school, strangled and stabbed. Little was gunned down in broad daylight, carrying his own weapon as two other men chased him down the street.

Four young women enter the first chapel, stroll down the aisle, gaze at Wesson’s body for a long moment, whisper to each other, and file out. Wrong chapel. They try again, look into Little’s casket, and burst into tears. Soon afterward, dozens of young men, sporting tattoos and low-hanging pants, drift in. One tattoo displays a fist and the words Pay me. Another has a dollar sign next to the phrase When money talks, I listen. The youths line the wall, some with eyes unflinching. Others sniffle or shake with sobs, unable to stop. A slim young man wearing a shirt that shows a skull and reads R.I.P. Brandon Little, Your Riches Are Acquired by the Misfortune and Bloodshed of Others crouches, covering his face.

As the services for Wesson and Little begin, the words of the two preachers echo and blend in the hallway. In one chapel, Wesson’s mother speaks: “My baby, she was good. She was real good.” Across the hall, the Reverend Joseph McAfee aims his words at the young men who crowd the chapel’s pews. “All you know is kill, kill, kill,” McAfee says.

“Preach!” cry some of the mourners.

“Are you the next Brandon? … Is your funeral gonna be the next one?”

“Better think about it!” a woman calls.

“Stop the Brandons,” says McAfee. “Stop the madness!”

Leak, who is as tall and dignified as you could hope a mortician would be, says he’d much rather bury an elderly man who died of natural causes. “Then you’re arranging a funeral that turns out to be a celebration of life.” Business would be simpler, too. As it is, Leak sometimes braces for violence, wary of gang members seeking revenge. Other times, he finds himself counselor to heartbroken mothers whose children were struck by bullets meant for someone else. And many crime victims require complex restoration work. “The worst are beatings with blunt objects like baseball bats or tire irons,” says Jeraldine McCall, who works as an embalmer at Leak & Sons, “or someone stabbed in the face 40 times.”

As an African American man, Leak despairs. And as the holder of a master’s degree in criminal justice, a former director of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, and the chairman of the Black on Black Love anticrime organization, he has his own theories about who or what is to blame. In particular, Leak is convinced that most youths who become violent can’t read above the third-grade level. “They have this hatred for themselves, because they’re not going anywhere.” He hopes that his fellow South Sider, President Barack Obama, whose Chicago home is about 30 blocks away, will devote some attention to low-income children who can’t read. “They are our future murderers,” Leak says. And his future customers.