‘Not just a body:’ Funeral directors grapple with gun deaths
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — As Justen Wright began to embalm his cousin and best friend, the loss hit him unexpectedly and hard.
“I cried all over him like a baby, God knows I did,” Wright said. “It was the last thing I could do for him. Even in that moment, it was difficult to digest.”
Brandon Lee Brinkley died in 2008 in a shooting that remains unsolved. He was killed in December, three days after his 25th birthday, another sad statistic in Wilmington’s battle with gun violence.
With record-breaking shooting deaths in recent years, Congo Funeral Home and House of Wright Mortuary have seen and handled many of the city’s homicide victims, and helped their families cope with the loss.
They didn’t expect to see so many young adults and teens rolling through their doors when they were training for the job.
“People assume death doesn’t affect us because we are around it so much, but it does,” Trippi Congo said.
The funeral directors see the ripple effect the violence has on the family, particularly the children of the dead, as well as on the community.
Both men, one a former city council member and one a current member, said it makes them want to help find a solution to the violence.
In 2017, Wilmington reported a record 34 murders, most by shootings. This year, Wilmington has seen a fall in shootings, with only 44 so far this year, a 55 percent decrease from 2017. Fifteen people have died.
To Wright, the number doesn’t matter.
“It’s constant to us,” Wright said. “Whatever the numbers are, it’s ongoing.”
The city’s gun violence has forced the directors to bury neighbors, friends and even family members. That challenges the well-practiced discipline that morticians are taught to distance themselves so the sadness doesn’t permeate their lives, and they don’t get burned out.
“When I got into this, I never thought I was going to be burying classmates,” Wright said.
Traumatic deaths impact those in funeral services, said Alan Creedy, former chairman of Wisconsin-based Funeral Service Foundation, which helps funeral workers build relationships with their community. He said those sudden and violent deaths cause additional stress for morticians.
“It’s not just a body. Funeral homes are the ones picking up the body and seeing the aftermath. The body riddled with bullets and blood splattered everywhere,” Creedy said. “They see all of it.”
Wright said all he can think about when he sees family and friends gathered to remember a shooting victim is the effects that death will have down the line.
He distinctly remembers one shooting victim from early in his career. A father who had been gunned down was lying in the coffin, and his son walked up.
“My son was like 4 or 5 and this boy was like 2. And he was coming into the church and he was like, ‘Dad,’ and his dad was in the casket. His dad could not respond,” Wright said. “He was just pointing like, ‘There is my dad.’
“That was one of the worst moments for me.”
Wright said the deaths make him more conscious of how he raises his boys. He tries to appreciate the moment, hold their hands more and steer them away from the wrong crowd.
“It caused me to be a little more caring and intentional,” he said. “It plays with you psychologically.”
Congo said he worries about the young faces he sees attending services time and again.
“We see the same kids going to funeral after funeral,” Congo said. “I can’t believe they have to deal with that. All that loss.”
Congo said his funeral home will give grieving families a discount on the cost of a funeral after a sudden, violent death to help them through the anguish.
“We have to help in any way we can,” Congo said. “Fortunately, we are in a financial position where finances don’t determine the type of services we can provide for a family.”
He said he can’t imagine what the families are going through.
“I see the gun violence kind of more directly than most, but I haven’t been in those families’ shoes,” Congo said. “For me to say that I have felt more than a child, a father, mother, brother or sister — that would be disrespectful.”
Robert Smith of the American Board of Funeral Service Education said burying people in a close-knit community is tough, but that those in the funeral service have to put their job over their feelings.
“You grieve on your own terms afterward,” Smith said. “You are working so much to make sure that everything runs smoothly. You have to find an outlet to keep things in perspective.”
One of Wright’s outlets is a charity in his cousin’s name, the Brandon Lee Brinkley Foundation. The organization raises money and provides scholarships for those training to become a barber, just as Brinkley had been before he was killed.
Smith said he thinks that new studies that look at the effect of dealing with so much death and stress have helped today’s funeral directors cope better. So has more women entering mortuary services.
“The women come in and open up and share with each other. We benefited a lot by talking about what’s going on with us and being open,” he said.
Congo said about 5 percent of the 400-plus funeral services his company does annually are a result of gun violence. Wright’s home serves about 325 families a year, including a small percentage of those dealing with shootings.
Wright said he understands that many people who aren’t in the funeral home business would think that morticians become desensitized, but that’s not how he sees it. He’s doing his job, protecting himself so he can serve others.
“It’s not something I look forward to, but you deal with it because you are trying to help somebody else,” Wright said.
Congo would like to find a way for schools and education programs to teach inner-city kids life skills to help them navigate the streets.
“We have to change mindsets of the children in our community,” Congo said. “We have enough interested people. There is not an urgency to change the system.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com