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Day in the Life: The Funeral Director

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A Day in the Life: The Funeral Director

By Ada Kulesza


Be Ready for a Funeral

Wide double doors open and the first mourner walks down the aisle.

She's beautiful, in her mid-30s, with straight jet-black hair and bangs, sharply dressed in a black mini-skirt and black stockings, six feet tall in stiletto heels. She clutches the arm of her escort, who wears a leather jacket, jeans, and Arab-checked scarf around his neck.

When she gets to the plain pine box at the front of the hall, draped in a tapestry emblazoned with Arabic script, she silently buckles and covers her eyes. She spends a long time gazing into the open box, talking to the shrouded body inside.

After her, a woman holding two children approaches. The older girl peers in, crying. The younger boy won't look.

Whispering something or gazing into the box, one by one the others take their turn -- hair immaculately combed into place with perfect curls, skirts revealing the curves of thighs, blue jeans and leather jackets, hooded sweatshirts, sneakers and the occasional headscarf -- the mourners fill the rows of chairs facing the pine box until about 100 people sit quietly, radiating disbelief and grief.

One of the last, a woman with a cane, escorted by two younger people on either side of her, hobbles up to the pine box. Her black fur jacket and perfectly molded black-and-gold streaked hair can't hide that she shakes and trembles all over. She clearly isn't in the best health. She gazes at the box, and releases a long wail.

Silence is shattered; the room suddenly fills with sobs and sighs.

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Police had shot and killed the man in the pine box two nights earlier in West Philadelphia. He was in his late 30s, and for all the newspaper report tells, he was a scoundrel, a criminal, and the city's better off without him living and breathing here.

"Why?" the old woman's voice rises over the rest as Khadijah Alderman, the funeral director, comes over to her and says, "Allah will make this easy for you."

In a pale blue and lavender headscarf and floor-length dress, Alderman, 58, is the conductor of this symphony of grief. She guides mourners and the dead through the process of their final ceremony with grace and humor.  She has been doing this since 1999, and business is brisk. In November alone, she had 27 funerals.

Many are elderly, others had suffered long and hard from illnesses, but the thing that gnaws at Alderman as she professionally performs her tasks is how many she buries die young and healthy.

She says she handles an average of four or five funerals a month for people who've been killed by violence in Philadelphia.

 "I mean this is something we would like never to happen," she says. "But if it has to happen, let it be once in a blue moon, not two or three or four a month."

For a woman who makes her bread by the dead, she carries the heavy burden of seeing how murder impacts the family and friends because of the endless train of violence.

"Sometimes it makes me angry, that it happens like this. When I look at these young men, I look at my grandson, my nephews, I feel defeated in some ways. Why does this keep happening?"

A flat-screen HD TV on the wall over the pine box displays the Arabic script of the Janazah, or funeral prayer, offering solace and hope but no answer for the endemic violence that claims young black men, month after month, year after year in this city, especially in the neighborhoods Alderman serves.

After the prayer, Khadijah Alderman stands before them and explains the logistics of going to the cemetery in a funeral procession -- flashers on, sticker in rear-view mirror, and stay with the procession regardless of traffic rules.

Remember to pray the whole time. At the cemetery we're still in prayer.

Please don't chat or check your cellphones.

A mourner stands and says "I'm his father. I pray. He was a comical kid." Alderman gently interrupts him. "Sir, we're late to go to the cemetery. We have to leave now."

They load the casket, and the mourners get in their cars and slowly process out of the parking lot, onto West Hunting Park Avenue, bound for a cemetery in New Jersey.

The funeral home falls silent again, except for the undertaker working in the morgue, and the secretary in the office, waiting for the phone to ring. She never waits long. Answering the phone at a funeral home is a full-time job.

 

The Gates to the Grave

Khadijah Alderman Funeral Services, Inc. sits a few blocks from train tracks in a neighborhood somewhere between urban and industrial, just south of the Roosevelt Boulevard and just east of the Schuylkill River, in Nicetown. It's standard North Philadelphia fare -- a commercial strip nearby, blocks with tightly packed row houses and storefronts, fast-food places, bodegas, a couple speakeasies, and abandoned real estate speckled here and there.

The funeral home is in a former bookbinding factory. On a wall in the parking lot a mural lists the names of all the victims of violence killed in 2006 in Philadelphia. The phone pole in the front of the lot has teddy bears tied to it going up its length. The stuffed toys are gray and washed out and bleak in the weak November sun, decayed after years of exposure.

Alderman bought the location in 2012, moving from West Philadelphia, and the mural and teddy bears were there when she arrived. A perfect coincidence and auspicious sign if you're a superstitious real-estate buyer in the funeral-home market. When she was looking at the place, she recognized the names of many people she had buried that year.

Double glass and wood doors open to the lobby, with hardwood floors and handsome antique chairs, decorated only with plenty of green plants and gilded Arabic script framed over the fireplace mantle. The hall turns right and leads past a

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row of plain wooden doors to the main hall.

To the right the secretary, Tia Wallace, 45, sits in the office, the radio on full volume to an old school R&B station. The loud music calms her because she's terrified of dead people and doesn't want to risk being alone and hearing something... anything... coming from the morgue.

Down the row of unmarked wooden doors, the last door on the left before the ceremony hall, is the morgue where Imam Jamil Abdullah does his work. The room is chillier than the rest of the building, tiled and sterile like a restaurant kitchen, with a sink, stainless-steel counters, instruments, and the body of an overweight middle-aged woman in a casket set upon a stretcher.

Abdullah snaps rubber gloves on and adjusts the woman's lips. She looks slightly annoyed by the prodding and pulling. "This one had a lot of fluid," he says, dabbing her face with a smeared tissue. As a Christian, she was embalmed.

He plugs in a hair dryer and starts brushing her hair out, a shock of curly black against a white satin pillow.

The morgue's walk-in cooler looks a lot like a florist's or restaurant's walk-in. Five shrouded bodies are lying on racks that resemble bunk beds, three on the left and two on the right, waiting in line for their moment.

Once he's done with the woman's hair, Abdullah comes in the office and slumps into a chair next to Wallace's desk. He sinks his cheek into his hand and says, "I need to stop spending so much time with dead people."

You need a sense of humor to work in this industry. Some green plants are drooping in the foyer. "Hey Tia," he says. "We're going to have the service for these plants on Sunday."

Khadijah Alderman has a good sense of humor, too. A short woman with gentle authority, she likes to make jokes and then chuckle, grabbing her listener's hand or slapping his knee. She has a deep gaze, probing but compassionate, even though she keeps it light during light times, and appropriately serious when confronted with people in mourning. She exudes a sense of caring.

She decided to be a funeral services director when she was 40, obtaining her certification in 1999.

During her first career as a respiratory therapist at hospitals in the area, she was the technician who keeps a person's airway passage clear, pumping the oxygen bottle during medical emergencies.

She saved many people's lives and saw many people die.

Like a good businesswoman, she saw a niche in the market that needed to be filled. For many of the Muslims in Philadelphia, there weren't many legitimate, certified funeral directors to choose from. Alderman decided to become that person.

 

Angel of Death on Earth

As November wanes into December, the phone rings. Usually it rings and it's the teary voice of a stranger. Sometimes, it's someone with bad news about someone close. This time, it's a friend calling about the death of one of Alderman's closest friends from her days in respiratory therapy. Mourner and funeral director both, she begins making the arrangements.

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Her funeral home does funerals for anyone who needs one, but mostly does Muslim and Christian services, especially for the black community. The Muslim services consist of a pine box and burial in a shroud with a wooden board called a vault placed over the body; Christians typically use caskets. Muslims have bodies washed; Christians wash, embalm and use cosmetics. "They like them rather lifelike," says Imam Jamil Abdullah.

In many cases, families are unable to pay for services.

The city of Philadelphia has a modest fund set aside for victims of violence -- about $6,000, Alderman says. Otherwise, sometimes when a family finds themselves strapped for the funds, Alderman lets them pay what they can, and eats the rest.

She also arranges shipments for immigrants overseas -- after the funeral for the man shot down by police, she sends a Senegalese man on a long journey to his grave in Africa.

Alderman grew up in Philadelphia and spent her late 20s and early 30s in a Victorian duplex on 48th Street and Baltimore Ave, where her daughter used to play music with their downstairs neighbor. She loved that neighborhood: "It hasn't changed."

Thirty years later she lives in Overbrook Park, and she's met innumerable families from the area and seen them at their most vulnerable: grieving someone they've lost.

"Sometimes when I get a call I will say, 'Please God, don't let it be a young men. Please don't let it be to violence.' It's hard," she says. "It breaks my heart. I'm really saddened by it. I don't think there are any circumstances where someone should kill somebody, but when I hear there was an argument? Does that warrant you to take somebody's life?"

Just about everyone who works at the home has lost someone from violence. Alderman's nephew was shot and killed at age 21. The pallbearer, another nephew, held his best friend as he bled to death on his porch from bullet wounds.

The youngest generation is utterly used to it.  The telltale sirens and police helicopters circling overhead.

 

Funeral for a Young Man

Lesie Glenn always hated the sound of helicopters.

It's already dark on December 4 at 7:30 p.m. when they start buzzing as she sits in her living room near 61st Street and Haverford Avenue. She reaches for her phone and dials her sons. Her oldest is coming home now. Next, she dials her younger 

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son, Najji.

The phone rings and rings. He doesn't answer.

Her older son opens the door, and she hears someone yelling from the street, "Your boy just got shot!"

Something happens to Leslie Glenn. She becomes very calm, a calmness that follows her to the Intensive Care Unit of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Eventually Glenn pieces together what happened. Najji Abdul-Rahim, 19, was at a Police Athletic League club when a fight broke out, apparently between two rival groups, neither of which the boy was a part of. His friends told him not to leave the building, but he went outside anyway and got shot six times, through the legs and abdomen.

It was a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a good kid. He loved videography and cars. He worked on producing videos for musician friends. He was in school. He was a handsome boy with a wide smile, tall and broadly built. Maybe that made him an easy target in the dark. He died at the ICU.

Glenn is calm but she doesn't quite stop crying; the tears stream, turning her small face red and wet, as she starts the arrangements: pulling out the life insurance policy she's taken out, and picking up the phone.

At 6 a.m. on Wednesday, December 5, Khadijah Alderman's phone rings. It's never a pleasant sound, and she always says a little prayer before she picks it up: "Let it be someone old, an old grandmother or grandfather. Don't let it be a mother, telling me her son's been killed."

Leslie Glenn is on the other end of the line.

Five hours later, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Glenn and her son's fiancee,  Leshawn Brown, who is six months pregnant with Najji's baby, sit at the long mahogany table in Alderman's conference room.

"I realized it could have happened to me like it happens to other people. And here I am," says Glenn. She's trying to explain why she seems so calm.

Brown cries silently throughout the whole arrangement process, looking at photos of Najji on her cell phone.

"My other son said, 'You can't go after other people,' because when it's time, when God wants you....," Glenn trails off for a moment. "And the other person doesn't know he's going to do that. It's almost serendipitous. Things just converge at that one moment."

"You know Najji is with God now," says Alderman, resting her hand on Glenn's forearm and gazing deep into her eyes. Glenn nods and presses together her lips.

"He had lost one of his best friends two years ago, another good young man, was going to start college within a month of getting killed. Najji never got over that."

"I always knew there was a chance it could come," Glenn says. That's why she took out a life-insurance policy. "I would always live with that. It's always part of your reality. When they go out, it's like shooting dice, you never know if they'll come home or not."

Last week, Glenn says, she was at a day care center with her 4-year-old granddaughter. The owner, who happened to babysit Alderman's granddaughters, had a stack of the funeral home's business cards.. The granddaughter wanted to take home the whole stack, but Glenn let the girl have one, praying she'd never have to use it. It was in her pocket, which is why Glenn called Alderman. Strange coincidence.

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They go through the funeral arrangements: paperwork for the death certificate, choosing a cemetery, planning the obituary pamphlet and scheduling the service. Alderman explains the Muslim funeral services.

The next day the boy's brother and close friends arrive at 4:30 pm to help wash the body. The family is calm, but the friends are very distressed. At 6 p.m. Glenn and the rest of the family come to inspect the body before it's wrapped in three white cloths and placed into a pine box.

At 10:30 a.m. on Friday, December 7, Khadijah Alderman pulls up to the Philadelphia Masjid, a nondescript mosque inside a box-like building at 47th Street and Westminster Avenue. It's raining and cold.

The mosque is a wide room, the size of a basketball court, but carpeted and bare except for a doorway covered in a veil, symbolizing the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. The mourners sit in chairs and on the floor, men in front and women behind.

The pine box is by the door.

The Imam explains the Janazah prayer, and he urges everyone to pray for Najji, and not to look for revenge.

After the prayer the mourners put their shoes back on and head to their cars. Alderman and the Imam lead the hearse, limousine and procession onto Belmont Avenue, north to Westminster Cemetery, to a hilltop where a tent with chairs has been erected next to the grave. Beside it is a mound of dirt with shovels stuck in.

Leslie Glenn, Leshawn Brown and other tear-faced women in headscarves sit under the tent as the men gather around the grave. The hearse drivers call out to the group, "Let's have some big brothers help us with the coffin."

With further prayers, hands open in supplication, men pick up the shrouded body and lower him gently into the grave on his right side, facing east, into a niche carved below. They gently lower a black vault on top. Then they start shoveling.

The men take turns, the only sounds the rub of metal against earth, the falling rain, and earth falling into the grave.


Photos by Peter Tobia

Cover Photo: The body of Najji Abdul-Rahim, 19, is lowered into the grave.

Photo One: Family and friends of Abdul-Rahim gather as his graveside.

Photo Two: Workers wheel a new pine box into the funeral home, past the wall of violence victims since 2006.

Photo Three: Funeral Home Director Khadijah Alderman (left) with worker Tia Wallace.

Photo Four: Alderman oversees mourners at a wake.

Photo Five: The body of Abdul-Rahim is carried into the mosque.

Photo Six: At graveside, Leslie Glenn (right) is comforted by her niece, Imani Glenn.


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