Grief's guide amid violence

Families torn by tragedy lean on Phila. funeral director.

Posted: July 29, 2007

The five teenagers stand before the casket at Mitchum-Wilson Funeral Home Inc. in South Philadelphia, their eyes trained on the body of the 14-year-old gunshot victim - just a boy. Like them.

"This is the result of guns," says funeral director Charlene E. Wilson-Doffoney, dressed in a dark coat suit and black patent-leather shoes, her typical funeral-day attire.

She gently folds the powder-blue casket lining around the body.

"This is the part you guys don't know," she says, turning to the teens. "He's not going to get up. This is it. This is what guns do."

She knows this firsthand. More and more.

Eighteen-year-old Derrick Derrickson, who previously was arrested on gun charges, winces. "This is not something you would want to see," he says in a barely audible voice.

Brandon Steplight, 15, who bears the scar of a bullet on an upper arm, shakes his head.

Wilson-Doffoney places a white cloth over the face of Tykeem Law, an Alcorn School basketball player who was shot to death by a stranger July 14 while riding his bike with friends on a South Philadelphia street.

She locks the casket and tells her staff not to roll it. She wants the five teens to carry it from inside the funeral home out to the van, for transport to the church service later this morning.

"They need to feel the weight of death," she says, looking at them.

It's a weight that Wilson-Doffoney, 50, bears every day as a funeral director in what has become the deadliest of America's 10 largest cities.

For more than 25 years, the quick-witted woman with "sister" locks and a Whoopi Goldberg smile has buried thousands of people, from fetus to age 115.

In recent years, more and more young black boys and men are coming her way.

Wilson-Doffoney has stopped counting. She tries not to remember their names anymore or where they were mortally wounded. She doesn't like reading the newspaper or watching the news. She has become a funeral director who hates going to the cemetery.

Death has hit close to home: Her brother-in-law was murdered in January; she says he was to be a witness in a murder case. One of her son's friends, 21, was shot in the head last fall; authorities suspected suicide, but family members differ. She buried a friend's sons - all three of them - murdered in a span of several years, then watched her friend have a nervous breakdown.

And death has hit strangers who quickly become friends: She didn't know Tykeem's family before his death. By the end of his funeral, they would become about as close as people can, so much so that she would later accompany the family to court for a hearing for 18-year-old Charles Meyers, accused of killing Tykeem. Police say Meyers, of South Philadelphia, opened fire from his car when Tykeem didn't get his bicycle out of the road fast enough for Meyers.

The business of young people is one thing no funeral director wants.

For about 10 years, Wilson-Doffoney has worked with Don't Fall Down in the Hood, a program that helps young men, often arrested on drug and gun charges, turn their lives around. The teens at the funeral home at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday are part of that program. She also speaks to inmates.

A month ago, with her frustration mounting over all the guns and killing, she shredded her own gun permit. She won't seek to renew it, she says.

But today, she faces another cemetery and the task of putting another child in the ground. For her, it's the most disturbing part of a funeral, because of its finality. She waited two weeks to bury her own father.

The part of the job that keeps her donning black suits again and again is the thank-yous.

For some reason - she doesn't know why - on this morning she feels the need to kiss her husband, Richard E. Doffoney, a prison guard trainer for the state system in Chester, one more time before she leaves home to bury Tykeem.

Just one more kiss.

On Monday, 24 hours before the funeral, Wilson-Doffoney's staff was putting the final touches on Tykeem and the program. A pleasant, new-age CD by pianist Kevin Kern played. It relaxed her.

"His nails need to be polished," the funeral director said, touching Tykeem's hand as he lay in the casket, dressed in a T-shirt decorated by his favorite tattoo artist, Ed Hardy, and sneakers to match. His father, Rudolph Law, had brought the outfit to the funeral home.

Wilson-Doffoney's cell phone rang. It was Tykeem's mom, Shauta McDuffie, 31.

"I'm just looking at your son," Wilson-Doffoney told her, soothingly.

"Everything's OK. I'm getting ready to polish his nails. How are you coming on today?"

Wilson-Doffoney had known the woman for less than a week, but had become a confidante. The family chose Wilson-Doffoney because it had heard she keeps people looking as they did when they were alive. And the funeral home, at 20th and Reed Streets, was in the neighborhood.

Six days earlier, the women had shared a meal and long conversation. McDuffie had told her about Tykeem. He was a good boy, a model student, a help to her. The last time she saw Tykeem, he rubbed her stomach and told her that she was looking thinner. All that exercise he had encouraged her to do had paid off.

Wilson-Doffoney had told her that she must speak at the funeral, that the community needed to hear "the cry of a mother" for things to change. To the funeral director, McDuffie had seemed hesitant. She had told Wilson-Doffoney that she would have to pull herself together for that.

As they had talked, the women ordered dessert - chocolate ice cream for McDuffie, cheese cake for Wilson-Doffoney. Each had promised she would cut back again, but this was a time for comfort.

During lunch, Wilson-Doffoney had watched McDuffie quickly swing from quiet and smiling to angry and grief-stricken. She had seen her look off in the distance, lost in thought.

Now, with the funeral closing in, McDuffie was calling to ask about the programs.

"I got ya," Wilson-Doffoney told her. "I got you. . . . I'm a phone call away."

Wilson-Doffoney hung up and drove to Solid Rock Printing to check on the programs.

She called McDuffie again from the print office.

"Hi, baby. You like the sunset of him on the cover?" she asked as she studied it in her hand.

McDuffie answered yes.

On the way back from the printer, Wilson-Doffoney passed a mural at 18th and Dickinson Streets, with pictures of young men shot to death. Sultan Chandler, 21, was among them. She had buried him in 1998 after he was shot numerous times near the site of the mural. She remembered how his death had set off a war. Seven people "went down" after he died, she recalled.

While parked near the mural, she recognized a man in his late 20s and called him over. He approached the car with a friend, also in his 20s. Both still mourn Chandler.

"This is 'Killadelphia,' " one said.

She asked them why they thought all the killing was happening. The previous weekend had left seven people dead and 36 wounded.

"Bad business," one of them finally said - drug business.

Wilson-Doffoney has her own theories: Besides drugs, it's the lack of jobs. It's men fighting over women, boys fighting over girls. The schools have made the mistake of evicting God from the classroom, she says. And not enough counseling is offered in the schools or the community. Things got better for a while, but in the last three years, they have worsened again.

She passed another mural at Opal and Wharton Streets, with a painting of her son's friend - the one shot in the head in the fall.

Driving on, she spotted Ronald W. Brown, getting into his car after buying a birthday gift for his wife. She rolled down the window and said hello.

She had buried his son, too. Shot to death.

She stopped by Jazz U Up II Barbershop. The barbers and customers lamented all the killing.

"It's as easy to get a gun as it is to get a bottle of water," a 47-year-old patron said. "I could take you for one right now."

Wilson-Doffoney is so known and well-liked in her neighborhood that no one defaces her funeral building. Even the drug dealers look out for her. They know they could be the next to cross her threshold.

" 'You don't mess with Miss Charlene,' " she said they told her. " 'She's going to make sure you OK.' "

Wilson-Doffoney shook her head as she thought about it.

"That's crazy."

Outside Tykeem's father's house, family members are getting ready for the funeral. It's 10:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the service is supposed to start.

Things are a little behind schedule at the family's home, but that's OK. Wilson-Doffoney knows that the death becomes more real than ever the day of the funeral, and that people need to move slowly.

There's no sign of McDuffie. Tykeem's grandmother tells Wilson-Doffoney that she hasn't been answering her cell phone. The two women exchange worried glances.

Within a couple minutes, though, McDuffie rounds the corner on foot.

"You look so pretty," Wilson-Doffoney tells McDuffie, who is wearing makeup, sunglasses, and a black T-shirt with her son's face and "I love you Tykeem" on the back.

Wilson-Doffoney helps pin a corsage on McDuffie and rubs McDuffie's stomach, hoping to jostle the warm memory of Tykeem's last gesture for his mother.

"How's your day?" Wilson-Doffoney asks.

"It's OK," McDuffie says with a smile. "I'm feeling slim today."

"Yeah, baby," Wilson-Doffoney says.

Born in North Philadelphia, Wilson-Doffoney attended Philadelphia public schools and graduated from Overbrook High. She talks repeatedly about the "great" teachers she had and how they inspired her to become successful.

As a child, she never even saw a gun. She played with Barbie dolls, but she was also feisty. When she did fight, it was with fists - and then it was over.

"After you fight, you walk away, you shake hands, and you go about your business. If anything, you be her friend. If you get in another fight, at least you know she can fight," Wilson-Doffoney quipped.

She also wrote on buildings and buses - a graffiti artist with the tag name "Cupcake."

"I tore me some buses up," she recalled with a smile.

After getting caught and spending a night in juvenile detention, she gave that up.

As a young adult, she decided to become an undertaker. She always liked biology and, frankly, "messing with dead things."

After a stint at another funeral home, she went to work for Mitchum in 1983. Today, she owns the business, where her mother, stepfather, brother, sister, 32-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son - two of six children from three marriages - work. That son, Brandon, is studying to be a funeral director. The daughter, Tamisha, already is a funeral director.

Wilson-Doffoney at times is baffled by what she sees these days at funerals.

At the service for a teenage boy, someone decided to play a rap song calling for avenging the dead. The teenagers stood up as if it were the national anthem, she recalled. Mothers stood and swayed. Wilson-Doffoney, along with the clergy and school district officials, watched in shock.

She remembers a funeral where gunmen opened fire outside the church. People hid under pews.

She also has a friend whose son was shot and to this day won't tell his mother who shot him. She finds that unbelievable.

Some deaths get to her more than others.

One friend was murdered in the 1990s at a bar. He had told her that he knew he would be shot to death one day. It was eerie when he wound up in her funeral home, having died just that way.

"He died on his birthday," she recalled, a tear running down her face. She buried him.

Another friend was shot in 2005. She buried him, too.

To cope, she turns to God; she belongs to the True Light Fellowship Church in East Mount Airy.

She also started riding a motorcycle a couple of years ago. Long treks on winding country roads in her favorite T-shirt and jeans take her away from the dying. And she started skydiving.

Her own mortality weighs on her, though she believes she will die of an illness, not violence. She has written down her wishes for her burial to lessen the burden on her family.

Laid out on a Saturday.

Buried on a Monday.

A stainless-steel casket with burgundy trim when she is laid out.

An 18-karat gold-plated casket for the burial.

Billie Holiday and B.B. King music.

A motorcycle hearse, called a Tombstone.

A grave site at Fort Indiantown Gap. (It's free for military personnel; her husband of 13 years qualifies.)

The repast at Shady Maples buffet hall in Lancaster, a favorite diner.

By 11 a.m. New Hope Baptist Church is a sea of Tykeem T-shirts. "Only the good die young," says one.

Having carried in Tykeem's casket, the teens from Don't Fall Down in the Hood have taken their seats. Hundreds are pouring in, packing the first floor and balcony. People stand along the sides and three deep in the back, spilling into the stairwell.

Wilson-Doffoney checks Tykeem and places flowers from his siblings in the casket. She walks up the aisles, encouraging people to squeeze together so more can sit. She helps her staff pass out the programs.

"Are you all right?" she asks McDuffie, helping her to her seat.

The funeral opens with prayer and song, then impassioned speeches. Alcorn's principal, Pamela D. Young, takes a turn. So does State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.). There are poems, letters and tributes.

After about an hour, it's time for McDuffie and Tujuana Law, Tykeem's stepmother, to speak.

Wilson-Doffoney plants herself front and center, facing the grieving women, so they can see her as they speak. She wants to be their focal point to give them strength.

"From the time that you were born, God has smiled down on you," Law says in a soft voice. "You are a beautiful son and a loving brother. No one can take that away."

McDuffie takes the microphone. Wilson-Doffoney had wanted her to go last.

"The last time I saw him, he came up to me and said, 'Mom, you about to be Skinny Shauta. All you have to do is lose this,' " she says, recalling how he touched her stomach.

"Tykeem, I'm going to miss you so much," she says, finishing through tears.

Wilson-Doffoney takes McDuffie's hand, guiding her from the stage and back to her seat.

The minister speaks next, followed by more songs and prayers, then an endless procession past the casket - the final viewing.

After everyone else has left, it is time for the family to look upon Tykeem's face one last time. Wilson-Doffoney softly encourages McDuffie to come forward.

McDuffie rises slowly and takes a few steps. "My baby was killed," she calls out.

Wilson-Doffoney sees that McDuffie needs help. She steps toward her, and they look into each other's eyes.

The women embrace, just a few feet from Tykeem's body.

"I just love you," McDuffie tells Wilson-Doffoney. And then takes her last look.

For Wilson-Doffoney, that's the reward.

For her, the hardest part comes an hour later - putting Tykeem in the ground.

Another black boy who will never grow to be a man.


If you are a funeral director and would like to comment on the homicide problem as you see it, please e-mail your comments to Susan Snyder at ssnyder@phillynews.com. We will post responses at http://go.philly.com/bury and possibly in the newspaper.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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