Monday, October 27, 2008

Undertaker Tries to Save a Young Man's Life
Here is an inpiring story of undertakers giving back to their community and trying to save a young man from a life of violence.- from the KansasCity Star
Morticians try to save a young man’s life by making him face death
By MARY SANCHEZ The Kansas City Star
Frank Harvey absently picks a speck of lint from the forehead of his childhood friend. A parting gesture for yet another familiar corpse.
His 16-year-old counterpart, one of two black teenagers killed by gunfire in Kansas City, is lying faceup on the embalming table at the Duane E. Harvey Funeral Home.
Frank is 18 and spends much of his time at the south Kansas City funeral home, his days carefully overseen through the tutelage of a cadre of older black men. So similar most of their lives, now the two teens couldn’t be more distant: One his chest splayed open post-autopsy, the other standing at the foot of the stainless-steel table in a white shirt, tie and suit vest.
“The young people who come through here,” Frank says, “I know the majority of who they were and what they were about.”
He’s not boasting. The adage that six degrees separates all people must be adjusted for Kansas City. More like three degrees here, a town where people seem less apt to move away. Winnow it to one degree among black people born to the city’s East Side.
Frank has just covered his friend’s body with a velvet maroon drape and ushered the young man’s father and other family members in for a viewing. Frank’s mother used to date the young man’s uncle.
If Sunday is the most racially segregated day of the week for church services, funeral homes are an extension of that separateness. The Harvey funeral home also marks a class division. This is where the vast majority of black murder victims are taken.
And Larry Love is the mortician who for nearly 20 years has seen to their final care. It used to be that Love prepared the bodies of former classmates from Southeast High School, crossing out their pictures in an old yearbook. Now he’s busy burying those people’s children.
Love, 40, is among the men attempting to keep Frank from winding up on the table. But don’t assume it’s the gore of embalming that Love is banking on. Autopsied murder victims don’t faze Frank — [He] has seen his share of blood and guts, some of it caused by his own hands. He was certified as an adult, served two years on an involuntary manslaughter charge and was released in July. A far-too-old-for-him girlfriend had bought a gun, and Frank’s cousin ended up dead.
No, something far less tangible is what Love and the other men at the funeral home are counting on to save Frank: their caring concern, displayed minute by minute through the day. They form a force field of admonishments, running commentary and, most importantly, geographic distance from the urban core. Frank stays with Duane Harvey at night in his Raytown home and has even begun using the Harvey last name.
And so a recent Monday began a familiar routine: Love preparing the bodies of two more young black men killed in violence, Frank as his assistant.
Embalming is hard physical labor. Formaldehyde comes in gel, powder (mixed with sawdust) and liquid forms. Love will use all of them that day.
Frank wheels the gurney carrying the body into the room. It is the 17-year-old whom his friend was near when he also got shot.
Love tosses off the remains of the heavy black body bag, talking to Frank as he fills the empty chest cavity with water from a half-inch hose. He has long wished that viewing the impact of gunshot blasts would affect young people. “Do you think seeing this would help?” he says, putting his index finger into bullet holes, counting, “One, two, three, four, five … .”
“Nah, they’d glorify it. Put it on their MySpace page or something,” Frank replies.
“Let’s just say this young man had some sort of job — would he be here?” Love asks as he forces a long metal wand through the corpse, injecting liquid embalming fluid.
Love believes in work for teenagers. Like the “Joy Jobs” he had as a youth, an old city program that gave him cash for cool clothes and kept him busy and out of trouble by hauling trash. Another urban connection: The husband of the woman who taught Love much of what he knows about embalming helped design that job program.
“ ‘If a man don’t work, he shouldn’t eat,’ that’s what my mother used to say,” Love says.
Willie Love, Larry’s uncle, pops his head into the room, just checking. He’s sharply dressed in a suit.
“If anything ever happened to Frank, it would kill us all,” the older man says, making sure he catches Frank’s eye. Then he reaches out and shakes Frank’s hand, a gesture he will do three times in the next five minutes. A gentleman’s love touch to a young man.
“Give me two more,” Love calls to Frank. Frank goes to the cabinet, retrieves the pint bottles and pours formaldehyde into what looks like a Crock-Pot atop a stainless base.
The talk turns to the lost generations in some black families; mothers teaching their daughters to be prostitutes, others sharing drugs with their kids, the adults telling the kids to retaliate when a family member is murdered. Frank pipes in with examples.
“I don’t care how bad your parents are, that should not make you want to go out and have the life of crime,” Love says.
Love scissors a long piece of linen cord from a spool and holds it high above his head as he double-threads it through a long, curved needle. He’s ready to sew up the body, taking long, carefully drawn-under stitches.
“The streets are calling him,” Love says of Frank. “They already took his father.”
Frank shrugs, looks to the floor, his easy grin gone. Frank was 8 when his father died, 1998’s 21st murder victim. “His father was a nice guy, but he was involved with the gangs, and it cost him his life,” Love says.
His eyes scanning the floor, Frank says he never really knew what happened. The cops never said.
The conversation shifts to drugs. Frank has examples there, too. Young kids popping Ecstasy, later graduating to other drugs.
The advent of crack cocaine in the mid-’80s coincided with the young people beginning to kill one another, Love says.
“Johnson County just thinks this is all Jackson County’s problem,” he says, his voice rising. “But it’s all our problem. If you come down here to get high, to get your drugs, you’re just as complicit. Ain’t no guns manufactured at 39th and Prospect, either.”
He is washing the body now, taking care to rinse thoroughly, then patting it dry with a cloth. He knows family soon will be hugging and kissing this young man at his funeral.
“I’ll never give up hope on my people,” Love says. “Us as a people, this stuff isn’t our nature. We could have quit in the hull of that ship coming over toward slavery, but we didn’t.”
Frank has taken the wrist portion of a rubber glove and made a band he plays with as he sways back and forth in a swivel chair. But he’s listening.
“When Frank makes it, it will be his job to reach back and save someone else,” Love says, looking toward his young charge. “That’s how you save a community, one person at a time.”
He nods to Frank, motions to a gurney in the hall and says, “I’m ready for the next one.”

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