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Last Rites: Street Memorials
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Friday, November 18, 2011
In Baltimore, street memorials to the dead are a common sight, despite a state law banning them, which passed in 2008. They memorialize the victims of gang violence, street crime and traffic accidents. In almost all cases, the victims are young. In this installment of our series, “Last Rites: Death & Remembrance In Maryland,” WYPR’s Sunni Khalid reports on a new generation gap involving mourning rituals.
Five months ago on this spot, two Pigtown teenagers, 17-year-old Emerald Smith and her best friend, 16-year-old Courtney Angeles, were crossing Martin Luther King Boulevard, just before midnight, when they were mowed down in a hit-and-run accident. The two were transported to Maryland Shock-Trauma where they died a short time later. Within hours, a familiar scene repeated itself. Friends and family of the two girls erected a memorial on a traffic island near the fresh tire skidmarks left from the fatal accident. Home-made posters with both of the girls names, a handful of signed condolence cards and more than 40 teddy bears and other stuffed animals. The animals function as totems, says Maurice St. Pierre, a sociology professor at Morgan State University.
“A teddy bear is considered to be a friend, a friend of the child, that a child might use, a child might get close to that.”
He says the memorials are part of an emerging counter-culture of mourning.
“Human beings, when they are faced with certain trials and tribulations, or when they feel a challenge to certain values are being attacked, they feel that they collective conscience of the group is being attacked, and therefore, they feel it is necessary to respond in different ways.”
These memorials haven’t totally replaced churches, funeral homes or cemeteries, but, St. Pierre points out, they have become part of the public mourning rituals for the younger generation.
“One can worship in different ways. The Bible is very clear on that. Where two or more are gathered in my name, that constitutes a church. But what I think is important here is the extent to which an individual need not go to church. An individual can, in fact, derive a certain amount of religious pleasure, or can activate himself, religiously, or herself, religiously, without being in church. Because for whole different reasons, some people may find it uncomfortable being in church.”
And that’s disquieting to many local funeral homes, especially in the African-American community, who’ve been called upon to bury the young, where murder and suicide are common. Odyssey Gray is a mortician with the Russ Funeral Home on the West Side.
“There’s a movement away from church, from church service. And, earth burial diminished rapidly. People are not celebrating the life of the deceased person.”
Gray says street memorials and vigils alone, don’t provide families or communities with the proper amount of closure.
“A lot of people think it’s a sales pitch, that you’re trying to get funeral work. But these people need to do something to acknowledge the relationship. And when it’s not done, I don’t believe it leaves them in a healthy place.”
Even when there is a church service, Gray says younger mourners don’t know how to act.
“I have been at numerous funerals, where the actual service was going on, and the kids would come in and just walk up front and start viewing and talking, when the minister might be delivering his eulogy.”
He says it’s not just a lack of training in funeral traditions, but also an adoption of elements of the emerging gang culture – some are routinely buried with colored bandanas showing their affiliation. Some funeral homes have had to hire off-duty police officers, or request uniformed on-duty units, to provide security.
“A lot of times, the young men are upset and they’re crying. And they want to salute this person and they’re putting the ‘40s,’ the bottles of malt liquor in there. They want him to have those. They want him to have the blunts that they smoked together, I guess. They’ll throw money in there. It’s just a whole different arena.”
“Thank God, I don’t have to deal with it. I’d really not like to deal with the hassle.”
Cynthia Galmare, a mortician at the Joseph G. Locks Funeral Home, which is located around the corner from where the Dawson family was killed in a notorious arson – a house fire started by a drug dealer almost 10 years ago.
“Because the couple of bodies that I had, that were high-profile like that, I didn’t even bring them into the funeral home. First of all, I put them in the church. And let that atmosphere deal with them because it’s just too hard on us.”
Galmare says there’s always a threat that violence during a service for a recently deceased youth. She says Locks has an unofficial policy of not doing funerals for the victims of gang violence.
“Because we don’t even know if we’re going to get shot. People will come to funerals, there already in grief. Some of them have their anger. So, what do they do? They try to take it off on us. And most of the time, the ones that do it, aren’t the ones paying the funeral bill.”
Burying so many young members of the community also carries a financial burden for African-American funeral homes. Again, Odyssey Gray.
“It’s an extreme tragedy when you have Afro-American males, for the most part, 15, 16, 17-years-old, who are gunned down on the streets. And normally, there isn’t insurance, a lot of it is gang violence, there isn’t a lot of finances in the family. So, it’s really a struggle to not only work through the grief, but actually trying to raise the funds to have a funeral service.”
Erich March is general manager of the March Funeral Homes, the city’s largest African-American funeral home. He says undertakers, especially in the African-American community, would just as soon bury clients when they’re much older than the teenagers he and others continue to bury.
“People have this misconception that homicide is good for funeral homes. It’s not. More often than not, the family’s not prepared to handle the financial burden, because of the person’s age. They’re young, they don’t have insurance. Families have to pass the hat. Funeral homes end up discounting or giving away their services to help the family out.”
Whether or not families or communities are able to afford to bury their loved ones or not, the phenomenon of street memorials appears to be here to stay. Like this one in the 2700 block of The Alameda near Lake Clifton in Northeast Baltimore, where a handful teddy bears, dolls and balloons have been tied to two trees on a traffic island that runs the length of the boulevard. Dozen of candles lay at the base of both trees. They are reminders of a vigil held on the evening of July 13th, just hours after two-year-old Janiya Nicole Ludd, who lived in the neighborhood, died. Shelbert Hayes, who lives across the street from the memorials, described the tragedy.
“A car was coming down the street and it was kind of wet. And the car hydroplaned, came up on the curb, hit the tree over there, spinned around , and a little, two-year-old baby flew out the window. I was sitting on the porch when it happened”
Police said Janiya was not strapped in at the time of the accident, although her seven-month old brother was. Hayes said Janiya’s father, who was driving the car, was a neighbor and a member of a local car club. Janiya died a few hours later at a local hospital and soon after that news, community residents quickly erected a memorial at the spot. I asked Hayes about the memorial that remains.
“Do you think it helps out? Or do you think it makes any difference at all?”
“Well, I mean, people in the neighborhood, if someone passes away, they show their respect to that person and to that family by holding a vigil for them. I think it’s just showing kindness and love towards their family.”
Road memorials in Baltimore and elsewhere haven’t replaced funerals, but they have become a part of the death ritual observed by a younger generation. And they are likely to remain as long as they fill the needs of the communities in which they are erected.
I’m Sunni Khalid, reporting in Baltimore, for 88-1, WYPR.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this series do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council.
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