In Chicago, an undertaker tries to save teens from the streets — and is burying those he can’t

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Spencer Leak stands in front of Leak & Sons, one of the oldest funeral homes on Chicago’s South Side (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

CHICAGO — Spencer Leak Sr. has never known life without death.

From the moment he was old enough to remember, he was ambling around the funeral home his father founded here on Chicago’s South Side in 1933, when few places in the city were willing to bury blacks. Bodies of the dead, lifeless and still on gurneys and in coffins; the tears of anguished families struggling with loss — It was just a normal part of childhood for Leak, who came to view death as a shared and inescapable part of the human experience, no matter one’s race.

Leak had no second thoughts about what he would do with his life. In the third grade, long after he’d started working odd jobs in the family business, like answering phones, sweeping floors and working as an usher at funerals of people he didn’t know, Leak stood up and told his classmates that he wanted to be a funeral director, just like his dad. “They thought I was crazy,” Leak, who is now 80, recalled on a recent afternoon. “But to me, death was a way of life, a normal part of life.”

To be a mortician, one has to operate with a certain level of personal peace and understanding about human loss. Taking cues from his dad, who he says “taught him everything,” Leak has relied heavily on his Christian faith as he has continued the family business, viewing it as his own form of ministry. (He also had a parallel career in criminal justice, including four years as the head of the Cook County Jail). But lately, Leak’s relationship with death has grown considerably more fraught.

As the patriarch of Leak & Sons Funeral Home, one of the oldest funeral homes on the South Side, he has watched as his hometown have been ripped apart by unspeakable brutality in recent years, fueled by a dramatic spike in gun violence that Chicago officials have struggled to contain.

Last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, 781 people were killed — a massive jump over 2015, when there were 492 recorded homicides. A majority of the deaths have been attributed to a surge of shootings on the city’s South and West Sides, where the echo of gunfire has become a daily part of life. More than 4,300 people were shot in 2016, compared to 2,989 in 2015. All told, least year’s murder total was the highest since 1996, when 796 people died.

Spencer Leak Sr. consults a schedule of dozens of funerals he planned to attend on a recent Saturday. (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

After last year’s bloodshed, Chicago police hoped the city’s brutal winter would slow the gang feuds that have been blamed for many of the shootings, but the disturbing pace of violence has continued mostly unabated.

Since Jan. 1, according to a tally maintained by the Tribune, more than 1,000 people have been shot and at least 230 killed — a rate that is roughly the same as last year. The grim toll looms as Chicago braces for Memorial Day weekend, which has proven in the past to be the kickoff to a bloody summer. Over the three-day holiday last year, 69 people were shot and six of them were killed, and many worry about a similar horror this year.

For Leak, the crime rates are more than just dire statistics. Not only has there been an increased number of shootings near his funeral home on Cottage Grove Avenue in the Chatham section of Chicago, he’s been responsible for burying most of the dead. This role offers him a closer view than most of the unprecedented violence that has taken hold in this Midwestern city.

While Leak doesn’t keep an official tally because he doesn’t want to be seen as benefitting from the violence, his employees estimate Leak & Sons handled between 250 and 300 funerals for homicide victims last year. Since January, they have averaged two to three funerals a week for murder victims, sometimes more — many of them for young men in their 20s and younger.

“I measure what is happening here in how many times I have to comfort a mother grieving over her beautiful child, how many times I have to sit across from mothers at this desk, watching them cry, talking about their beautiful babies who are gone too soon,” Leak said during a rare quiet moment in his office. “I see these mothers in here once or twice a week, often more, and that’s too many. Something needs to be done to stop it.”

Leak operates his chapel with the idea that every victim is to be cherished, every lost life is to be celebrated, so as to not to forget the humanity of those whose lives have been sacrificed in what he describes as a “war on the streets of Chicago.” Like his father, he has a policy of never turning any family away, even if they can’t pay for the arrangements — a decision that has not been good for his bottom line but allows him to sleep better at night, knowing he’s tried to do what little he could to ease someone’s pain.

Spencer Leak Sr. meets with a grieving family at Leak & Sons. (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

Slideshow: A day of grief in a city of pain >>>

Yet some of the funerals he’s had to arrange for those caught up in Chicago’s street violence have been harder to bear than others.

Over the last five years, Leak has buried scores of kids, including a 6-month-old who was shot and killed while sitting on her father’s lap in a parked car. Police said it was a botched gang hit aimed at her father. In 2013, tragedy hit even closer to home. Leak buried his receptionist’s 17-year-old son, a youngster he had tried counsel after his mother voiced concerns that he was running with the wrong crowd. The boy had been gunned down in an alley two blocks from the funeral home where his mother worked, another victim of gang violence.

“There is no safe place,” Leak said.

The intensity of the violence has taken a toll on Leak and his employees, who have been overwhelmed in making arrangements and also worried about their own safety. Though funerals used to be a moment of truce in Chicago’s bloody gang wars, some memorials have themselves grown violent in recent years, disrupted by brawls, stabbings and even shootings. Workers at other funeral homes have reportedly been shot at during processions, but Leak’s chapel has so far avoided any violent incidents. He employs armed security guards at his chapel here and at his second location on the West Side. And he works closely with Chicago police. He almost always schedules the funerals of suspected gang members at churches, which remain one of the few areas of refuge on the South Side.

“Praise be to God, we’ve been blessed that we haven’t seen violence that others have,” Leak said. “Young people do not act out in church the way they would act out in a funeral home.”

While he’s relieved by the pause in violence, Leak has been disturbed to notice young people at memorials who seem to be there less out of mourning and more out of curiosity. Sitting in the pews, they intently examine every aspect, from the coffin to the music to the reactions on people’s faces. They come, he says, to see how “it is all carried out” as they plan for their own memorials.

Amid threats of violence at funerals for homicide victims, Leak works closely with Chicago police on security (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

“They haven’t given themselves an option of a long life. They don’t expect to live any longer than their friends,” Leak explained. “They see this violence in a different way than we do. They don’t expect to live long. They come in, imagining what will happen when they get shot.”

Leak stops and shakes his head. “To see something like that, to see this phenomena, you just can’t believe it. … How did we get here?”

It’s a question that has vexed many in Chicago, including Leak, who is determined to be more than just another mortician charged with burying the dead.

Walking a reporter into his office, past a television blasting news of a shooting the night before in a neighborhood a few miles away, Leak said his anguish over what has happened to his city, for all the lives that have been lost, has made him think about his legacy, about what he’s leaving behind. He wants to be viewed as an “activist funeral director,” someone who did whatever they could to try and stop the violence that is ripping the city apart. What is happening in Chicago is complicated and there are few easy solutions — though that hasn’t stopped him.

“I can’t sit here and be depressed and sad. I’ve got to do something about it,” he said. “You’ve got to be an activist, because if you’re not, people will accuse you, and rightly so, of being a bystander. … The reason we’re in the shape that we’re in is that bystanders have sat there and watched crime; hypocrites sitting on the side of the road in the city of Chicago who have done nothing.”

Leak speaks with some perspective. He and his family have been on the front lines of history in Chicago for decades. His father, Rev. A.R. Leak, came to the city from Arkansas in 1927 as part of the “Great Migration,” in which blacks fled segregation in the South. He worked a series of odd jobs, including as a bathroom attendant at the 1933 World’s Fair. Taking the $500 he earned from that job and borrowing $500 from his parents, the elder Leak opened a funeral home on the South Side to serve Chicago’s growing black population, people who were often too poor to bury their loved ones or find cemeteries that would accept nonwhites.

In the early 1960s, the early days of the civil rights movement, A.R. Leak helped desegregate the city’s all-white cemeteries. At the time, the family was close to Martin Luther King Jr. — the father marched with King on his march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965; while the son drove the civil rights leader around during his visits to Chicago. Some of these moments are memorialized in black-and-white photos that adorn the walls at Leak and Sons, where one of the three funeral chapels is named after King.

It was during the civil rights movement that Leak met his first wife, R&B singer Mavis Staples, to whom he was married for eight years. Shortly after, he met his second wife, Henrietta, the mother of his three sons, who now assists in the family business, helping prepare bodies for funerals. The two have been married for 48 years.

Spencer Leak Sr. consults with his staff before beginning a day of funeral visitation and planning. (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

While he continued working with his father at the funeral home, Leak got a master’s degree in criminal justice and held a series of state and local government corrections jobs until 2001 — including four years in the late 1980s as head of the Cook County Jail, one of the largest county jails in the country. He took charge of the family business full-time after his father died in 1993, and eventually retired from public service. But it’s hard for him to shake that history as he surveys what is happening to his city.

He points a finger at multiple groups — the police for not doing their job to the best of their ability; city officials who have underfunded schools and infrastructure, leaving much of the South Side devastated; groups like Black Lives Matter that he says have focused more on conflict than seeking common ground in the effort to find solutions.

While many focus on illegal guns flooding into the city, Leak argues that it’s more than that. Guns, he says, are merely an instrument for those who have lost regard or were never really taught to value their lives or those of others. That’s especially true for those living in the most impoverished parts of the city, where it’s easy to feel as though your life isn’t going anywhere.

As a man of faith, Leak strongly believes in teaching the Bible in schools and has advocated for it in Chicago’s public schools, although he admits it’s unlikely to happen. But at least, he argues, schools could teach basic values like morals and love. “Leave the faith out of it if you’re concerned about the constitutional issues,” Leak said. “Take an hour of the day and try to somehow teach these children how not to want to destroy each other. Teach them the value of human life.”

Though it is not yet summer, when violence is traditionally at its worst, the phones are already ringing nonstop at Leak and Sons. The waiting room is almost always packed with families waiting to meet with Leak and his staff about arrangements. They are busier than ever.

A workaholic like his father, Leak puts in long hours — waking up at 6 a.m. and working until 7 or 8 p.m. — and he rarely takes a day off. His staff worries he might be working himself too hard.

On the weekends, Leak and his three sons often attend as many as 20 funerals a day — a mix of clients who have died of natural causes and those lost to violence. While most memorials used to be held on Saturdays, there are now so many funerals that Leak has been increasing the number of Sunday services, trying to meet the demand from grieving relatives.

En route to a funeral, Spencer Leak Sr. greets residents at a memorial for shooting victims on Chicago’s South Side. (Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Yahoo News)

On a recent Saturday, Leak visited 10 funerals in a little over four hours, ferried around the South Side in a rain of Biblical proportions, that seemed unwilling to let up even for those desperate to see the sun. That morning, scores of activists were lined up along 70th Street as part of a human chain to mark the lives lost to gun violence and encourage residents to take back their community. And as his car passed, Leak rolled down the window to encourage those who stood there drenched in cold and misery. “The rain is gonna stop!” he called out. “The rain is gonna stop!”

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