Funeral directors gather and grieve Youth violence is taking a toll.

Posted: August 02, 2007

Albert Tillman, a 71-year-old funeral director, finds himself crying over the bodies of the young murder victims he has to bury.

"We're losing a generation, an entire generation," said Tillman, whose funeral home has been broken into and set on fire so the culprits could dump the body of a young homicide victim out of the casket.

"People say men are not supposed to cry."

Tillman isn't from Philadelphia.

He's from Riverside County, Calif., about 50 miles outside Los Angeles.

But his views and others shared at a national gathering drawing 700 black funeral directors to the Convention Center in Philadelphia this week show that other cities are also struggling with youth violence.

Some directors talked about rising homicide rates in their communities. Some spoke of escalating violence at funeral services - one cited a shooting of a young man inside a church service he oversaw in Los Angeles.

"We need stricter security, and we need to screen the people attending the funeral service, which is sad," said Ted Felder, 49, a Los Angeles funeral director for 26 years.

Another, Clarence E.H. Glover of Cincinnati, related an incident at a cemetery in which he had to "hit the ground" as shots were fired. No one was hit, said Glover, 57, a licensed funeral director since 1973.

And Kyle Ledford, 33, of Trenton, talked about how he must call for police security when his funeral home gets a young homicide victim. The gang unit provides security for the funeral home, where he lives with his wife and three small children, from the time the body arrives until it leaves.

"What kind of life is that for me and my family, under surveillance?" Ledford asked. "But it is a necessary evil. . . . It's safety. It's how I have to live."

As part of its meeting, which ends today, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association held a special session to discuss the violence and what funeral directors and their cities are doing about it.

In Cincinnati, the coroner goes to elementary schools in an attempt to reach children when they are young, Glover said.

In Gary, Ind., once dubbed the nation's murder capital, funeral director Paul Anthony Robinson talks to teenagers in a program titled "This Could Be You."

Philadelphia and other cities also offer such prevention programs. But funeral directors say more must be done.

"If this many homicides were occurring among white children, there would be some semblance of wanting to get at what the problem or the issue is," said Janet Powell, 64, a Philadelphia funeral director for 22 years.

"There's nobody taking care of the inner-city conditions in this country. It's almost as if it doesn't matter."

She called for studies to get to the root of the problem and for the federal government to step in with help.

Powell, whose funeral home is in Strawberry Mansion, said her son, now 24, has lost five friends - four of them to gun violence.

And she lamented a country of people "in grief," failing to provide its youngest citizens with enough help to cope with losing the people they know and love.

"So we may get some help for soldiers who return, but we are not getting help for the children who witness violence in their communities and are suffering," she said.

She added: "If these kids keep dying, we won't have anybody to bury. I dare say the black community is in serious, serious trouble."

Jamye Jeter Cameron, 34, a funeral director from Detroit, has the unusual perspective of being a gunshot victim as well. She was robbed and shot twice near her funeral home - in the neighborhood where she has lived all her life.

At one time, she wondered if the victims were somehow involved with bad influences.

No longer.

"I wasn't doing anything bad, and I got shot," said Jeter Cameron, a funeral director for nine years.

The funeral directors also said troubled youth are everywhere, not just in the inner city. Children in the suburbs are dying quietly of drug overdoses and suicide, which get little attention from the media, they charged.

"Those numbers in my neck of the woods are greater than those dying by gun violence," Glover said.

Funeral directors described the painstaking efforts they make to restore the bodies for the families. Glover said he once worked for 13 hours straight.

"You've got a mother who has no business burying her child. None! . . . She knows the body looks like hell. She knows it. She says, 'Please, please,' " he said.

It brings him to tears sometimes: "I don't know this kid, but I'm feeling the pain and the pangs."

Ledford said homicide victims that are about his age, 33, hit him.

"That is the hardest part - going down to my basement, looking at a person who is just like me," he said.

The funeral directors also complained about the media, saying that too often the stories of slayings are highlighted and not the good work that children do.

"They've been tracking numbers, almost as if it's a bingo game, in our papers," Ledford said.

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

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