What the Mortician Sees

January 04, 1994|By MILTON CLARKE

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Oakland, California.--Inner-city mortuaries -- once sanctuaries where people went to honor the dead -- have become new battle fields in America's urban war. Those on the front line who tend to the bodies say their jobs have become entangled in the violence of the street.

What has changed most in Trent Brown's career at East Oakland's C. P. Brannon Mortuary over the last eight years is the growing number of youthful homicide victims he now sees. Eight years ago it was rare for him to work on a body under 25 years of age.

Now, of the 25 to 40 bodies C. P. Brannon tends to each month, four to eight are teen-age African-American males -- all homicide victims. Usually they have been killed by two or three body shots to the chest or to the back. Murder victims are much more difficult to prepare for funeral services, according to Mr. Brown.

''There are times when nothing can help. If a person has gone through an emergency, there could be from one to 25 spots on the body where some life-saving instrument has been left -- an IV, drain tubes or tape that have to be removed. After the gunshot wounds and the hospital, you have the coroner going in for the autopsy . . . retrieving bullets. Opening the head to conduct a cranial autopsy is automatic when it's a homicide and that makes the eyes and eyelids swell.''

For Mr. Brown, the challenge is to make the body look good for the viewing process. ''If the body looks good, it tends to calm people down at the funeral, especially if there are kids,'' he says. He recalls a deceased young woman who had five children. ''She must have had at least 15 knife wounds to the back of the head and a cracked skull. Her face was fine, though, so we were able to present her in a good light.''

Funerals for young homicide victims draw ever larger numbers of young people to mortuaries, and their lack of decorum in the mortuary dismays Mr. Brown. ''The young people don't look at the mortuary with the same awe as older people. It used to be seen as a very quiet, respectful place where you didn't do anything wrong. Now it's just another building. They run around -- many even call the funeral directors by name.''

Mr. Brown says fighting among young mourners during funerals and wakes is becoming commonplace. Several times the fights have escalated into shoot-outs or a near shooting. In one instance a remark to the deceased's girlfriend triggered a shoot-out that left a young woman and a 5-year-old child wounded. In another, three ski-masked men jumped from a car aiming automatic assault rifles at some 200 mourners gathered in front of the mortuary. Casualties were avoided only because one of the guns jammed and the men fled.

Despite a youthful casualness, the services for young murder VTC victims can be a lot more somber than those for older people. ''When the deceased is old, there's a sense of humor in the service,'' Mr. Brown says. ''The family will bring up little things that happened and it will get a chuckle. There's a focus on the positive things that happened throughout the life. But with a young person, there's very little remembering and only talk of things that he would have done. The focus is on the death, the death, the death. 'He got shot, he got killed.' ''

Mr. Brown says it's not exceptional for both parents of the deceased to be middle-class people whose son simply wound up being shot because he was standing at the wrong corner at the wrong time. ''It makes you mad because you see a kid who was going to school and trying, who was just shot by mistake.''

The death of a young person frequently elicits an unusual outpouring of grief. Mr. Brown recalls the time a mother hit her dead son during a wake. ''I guess because she was so mad that he had gotten killed. She kept yelling: 'You didn't listen to me, you didn't listen to me, and look what happened.' ''

Milton Clarke, free-lance writer, wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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