By Meribah Knight August 05, 2013
The ringing phone announces the beginning of another day at Leak & Sons Funeral Home. When things get busy, it can ring 300 times an hour. By 10 a.m., the waiting room is filling up with people there to make arrangements. In his office, the company's president, Spencer Leak Sr., sits with a family. Such meetings often begin with a prayer and end in a hunt for funds—the bare minimum needed to celebrate a life. This is the business of death on the South Side.
Last year, the funeral home on 79th Street, a mile east of the Dan Ryan Expressway on the edge of Chicago's Chatham neighborhood, served 107 of the city's 511 homicide victims. So far this year, more than 200 people have been killed, and Leak has handled 41 of those funerals.
Being the go-to funeral home for homicide victims was never the goal of the Leak family. Rather, it was an accidental byproduct of a philosophy spanning its 80 years and three generations in the business: Turn away no one. Even if it means reducing the roughly $4,000-plus cost of a typical funeral, offering extended payment plans and, at times, burying someone at no charge.
That's why families unprepared to bury a loved one—those without insurance or savings—often wind up at Leak & Sons. It's not something every funeral home can handle: With just over 2,500 families served last year between the South Side facility and a location in south suburban Country Club Hills, Leak can afford, just barely, to balance its books while keeping its commitment to an open door.
“No mother should experience the death of a son on the streets of Chicago without having the ability to celebrate his life,” Mr. Leak says. He adds, however, that there are times when his charity causes his accountants and his sons to shake their heads in frustration.
It's fortunate that at 76 years old, Mr. Leak has the stamina to live up to his conviction. Always dressed in a three-piece suit, he routinely works up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Two of his three sons also work at the funeral home. The oldest, Spencer Jr., 43, will succeed him as president, as Mr. Leak succeeded his father, the Rev. A.R. Leak, who founded the funeral home in 1933.
Other family members help, too. On Friday evenings, Mr. Leak Sr.'s wife, Henrietta, often visits with families as they view their loved ones in one of the funeral home's three chapels or eight “slumber rooms.” If they're unhappy with the appearance of the remains, she will touch up the rouge, arch an eyebrow or paint the nails. Ask the elder Mr. Leak about the future of the funeral home and he points to a picture of his 9-year-old grandson, Spencer Leak III. “That's the fourth generation,” he says.
While Chicago's homicide rate has fallen since the 1990s, it spiked last year, exceeding 500 murders, the most in the country, even higher than in much larger New York and Los Angeles. The violence is concentrated on the South and West sides, especially during the warm summer months. Crain's spent July Fourth weekend at Leak & Sons to chronicle the effect of gun violence on one business at the center of the issue.
Erin Wells holds onto her son, Robert Douglas Jr., 10, next to his father's body.
At 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 4, the elder Mr. Leak is answering phone calls. Some are “first calls”—families comparison-shopping or looking to make arrangements for the coming week. Many are from families the home has served before. “If we buried (someone) in a family and did not service that family again, we'd be out of business,” he says.
Short-staffed due to the holiday, he is busier than usual. And it will only get worse. Long weekends always mean more violence.
“There is no safe space,” he says, shaking his head. Hours later and only a mile from the funeral home, a 7-year-old playing in a park will be shot in the neck by a stray bullet. The boy survived, but the shooting is another sign that Chatham, a once-bustling middle-class community with tree-lined streets, tidy lawns and well-kept bungalows, is experiencing the violence and decline more common in the surrounding neighborhoods of Greater Grand Crossing, Auburn Gresham and Roseland. The recession only has accelerated the decay.
'I STILL SEE IT EVERY DAY'
The commercial strip that the funeral home stands on still appears vibrant. But Leak's block has lost the African-American-owned floral shop, tavern and roller rink across the street. In their place are a Subway sandwich shop, a dollar store and a clinic. Down the street in each direction, commercial spaces are shuttered and boarded up.
“In the past, gun violence in Chatham and Hyde Park was unheard of,” recalls U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who has had several members of his family buried by the Leaks.
This perception of an increase in violence is the overwhelming attitude among funeral directors on the South and West sides. “You hear that gun violence and homicides are down in the city,” Spencer Leak Jr. says. “But I can't look at it like that because I still see it every day.”
My father considers our business a ministry and not just a business.
— Spencer Leak Jr.
Chicago has 161 funeral homes, according to the National Directory of Morticians Inc. in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “When a funeral home starts to run a series of crime-related funerals, they kind of become top of the mind for the public,” says Shirley Calahan, co-owner of Calahan Funeral Home Inc. in Englewood. After her funeral home buried Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old killed in a South Side park just a week after participating in President Barack Obama's inaugural festivities, Ms. Calahan says business went up notably. The funeral home, which serves about 350 families annually, says its percentage of homicide victims jumped to 15 percent of its total business from 10 percent last year.
On this day at Leak & Sons, in one of the funeral home's chapels, lie the remains of Robert Douglas, 31, killed in Englewood on June 26. Cosmetologist Sheena McClinton spent an hour in the morgue using a special wax to fill the bullet holes in his face after dressing him in a white suit and white Kangol cap and placing him in a powder-blue casket.
At a 5 p.m. viewing for family and close friends, Mr. Douglas' mother, Willia Douglas-Marshall, walks up to her son's casket. Caressing his hand, she shakes her head and whispers: “Oh, Lord Jesus, poor boy.”
Ms. Douglas-Marshall says she chose Leak & Sons because they allowed her to pay for the funeral in installments. Like most homicide victims, Mr. Douglas had no life insurance. “Most funeral homes really don't want to do the services unless it is paid in full,” she says. The Leaks are “willing to work with you.”
“It's a business that requires a personal touch,” the elder Mr. Leak says. “If the families feel a sense of you doing this for profit only, your business won't survive.”
The history of the Leak family reads like a storybook about the Great Migration. After leaving tiny Hensley, Ark., in 1927 and working as a bathroom attendant at the 1933 World's Fair, Rev. Leak saved up $1,000 and opened the funeral home.
Over the years, the Leak family gained influence in the city's African-American community. In 1964, Rev. Leak helped organize a march that led to the desegregation of Oak Woods Cemetery in Greater Grand Crossing. Today, a portion of Marquette Road that leads to the cemetery is named after him. “Once Oak Woods changed its policy, several other segregated facilities across the city integrated . . . for example Rainbow Beach,” Mr. Rush says.
In 1965, Rev. Leak marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
A year later, when Rev. King came to Chicago to speak at Soldier Field, Mr. Leak Sr. picked him up at the airport. Along the coffee-colored halls of the funeral home are photos of Rev. Leak with Rev. King. The facility's main chapel, a large room with dark wooden pews and light blue walls, is named for him.
MORE FUNERALS THAN BAPTISMS, WEDDINGS
In the 1970s, Rev. Leak founded St. Andrew's Temple Baptist Church in Englewood. The funeral home often recommends the church to families of homicide victims who do not have a congregation of their own. “The church should be open to the community,” says its senior pastor, the Rev. Peter Shelley. Last year, out of 80 funerals at the church, 65 were for victims of homicide—more funerals than christenings, baptisms and weddings combined, he says.
“They play a key role in the community,” Rev. Shelley says of the funeral home. “A lot of homicides go to them because they need a person to care about them. They know that the Leaks will be there for them.”
Spencer Leak Sr., right, escorts Willia Douglas-Marshall down the aisle of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church of Chicago during the funeral of her son, Robert Douglas, on July 5.
On the morning of Friday, July 5, the elder Mr. Leak gets into his black Cadillac sedan and makes the rounds of church services. By noon, when he arrives at Robert Douglas' funeral, he is already three funerals into his day. He stays only a few minutes, “enough time to let them know I was there, I cared about them.” As he does at most homicide funerals, he escorts a grieving mother to her seat, steadying her with both hands. An armed police officer clad in a bullet-proof vest stands in a corner.
As the funeral ends, an altercation breaks out in the parking lot. Within minutes, police swarm the lot, blocking the street. A police helicopter hovers overhead. Officers escort the Douglas family to the cemetery. A department spokesman says police do not have a presence at all homicide funerals, but those of murdered gang members often are policed.
The elder Mr. Leak says his funeral home never has had a serious incident. That's because he has a strict policy: Services for homicide victims are held at a church rather than the funeral home. “We have found that young people do not act out when they are in a church setting,” he says.
'I JUST WANT MY BROTHER TO BE GOOD'
By the time Mr. Leak begins his day at 9 a.m. Saturday, the holiday weekend's toll stands at 55 people shot, 10 fatally, pushing the homicide total to 200 for the year. A little after noon, Nicole Jones, 24, walks in. She has an appointment with Rosezina Jordan, the funeral director, to arrange services for her brother, William Jones, 26, who was shot on July 3 while sitting in his car in Auburn Gresham.
“I got $1,200 that is my rent money, and I will give you all of it. I just want my brother to be good,” Ms. Jones says through tears. She rocks her deceased brother's 7-month-old son, William Jones III, trying to quell his cries.
Ms. Jordan lets out a sympathetic sigh. “So are you all able to do at least $2,500?” she asks. Ms. Jones says she will try, but that her family has nothing. On average, a funeral at Leak & Sons runs $3,800 to $4,800. The national average is $6,560, according to the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wis.
Ms. Jordan asks Ms. Jones to get together what funds she can and let her know by the following Wednesday. After that, Mr. Leak Sr. will decide how to proceed. Under the state's Crime Victims Compensation Act, the Jones family may be eligible for up to $7,500 for funeral costs. But that is only if Mr. Jones' death meets certain requirements, the most important being that he did not contribute to his own death “by engaging in wrongful conduct or provocation.” Last year, Illinois received 773 applications for reimbursement for homicide victims, according to the attorney general's office.
Often, instead of putting the burden on the family, Leak & Sons will file a claim and wait to get reimbursed directly. The younger Mr. Leak says the funeral home waits an average of up to two years for compensation by the state. Last year, the funeral home filed 84 compensation claims.
“I don't want to earn my living off of young men and women getting killed in Chicago,” the younger Mr. Leak says. “Seeing a 16-year-old laying up in a casket with his whole life ahead of him, that doesn't sit too well with me, but I still have to service that family.” Both he and his father say homicides are not good for business. Too often, they are cutting prices or enduring lengthy waits to get paid, putting a strain on already-thin margins. “My father considers our business a ministry and not just a business,” he says. “You have to look past the profit.”
By Sunday morning, July 7, the holiday weekend's toll is 67 people shot, including 11 fatally. Sundays at the funeral home are less hectic because the cemeteries do not hold burials that day. At 9 a.m., the elder Mr. Leak records a weekly Baptist radio program for WGRB-AM/1390 called “It's Time Truth Speaks.” The program was started by his father 45 years ago and has welcomed guests including former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the late state Sen. Charles Chew Jr. and the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
The show's choir, Leak's Voices of Truth, sings gospel songs and African-American spirituals. Mr. Leak Sr. reads a sermon.
At 10 a.m., the show is over. The waiting room is already filling up.
Photos by Andrew A. Nelles