Being Unsettled by Flashy Funerals for the Young

The youth violence rate is down, on a national level as well as in Detroit, where commentator Desiree Cooper lives. Still, she's been noticing more and more funerals for young people killed in urban violence, because the funerals are more and more ostentatious. Funeral directors have expressed their dismay at the trend — and Cooper shares their sentiments.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

According to the FBI, nearly one in four homicides committed by young people occurred in just eight counties. One of those is Wayne County, Michigan. That's Detroit, where commentator Desiree Cooper lives. And lately she's been noticing more and more funerals for young people killed in urban violence because the funerals are more and more ostentatious.

DESIREE COOPER reporting:

Earlier this summer my son and I were caught in the middle of a mile-long traffic jam in Detroit. Young people were hanging out of the car windows, cheering wildly, speakers blaring. Was it a parade, I wondered. Then I saw the car at the head of the procession and it dawned on me.

It was a funeral. The violence in urban communities has been too high for too long. I have to wonder whether living with the realities of violent crime on top of the popular glorification of the gangster life has finally caused a permanent shift in urban culture, a shift most noticeable when you attend some inner-city funerals.

Funerals for young people, especially victims of violence, have become obscenely ostentatious. Displaying a feral-like belief that a person's worth is not determined by his good deeds, but by the extravagance of his final goodbye.

It's not unusual for teens to wear jeans and t-shirts bearing the images of the deceased. One funeral director told me about kids leaving the church, going to the mall to get a dog tag engraved with the dead teen's image and then showing up at the graveside sporting the new tags.

I've even seen kids who collect dog tags of their dead friends like charms on a bracelet. Other mourners have been known to buy outfits worth a couple thousand dollars for the deceased and then to buy the same ones for themselves. They attend the funeral looking like million dollar groomsmen to a corpse. Funeral directors have told me that they've seen people put cigarettes, bottles of beer, joints, even bullets in the casket with the corpse. They're even known to toss in wads of cash.

I asked Detroit funeral director Jimmy Fritz about it. He's been doing funerals for 50 years, a business he inherited from his father. Young people just don't have the respect for death that their elders had, he said.

Another director defended the emerging funeral culture, comparing it to the jazz funerals in New Orleans or the legendary Irish wakes. It's like an old Irish wake where everyone drank and told stories about the deceased, he said. It doesn't mean that they're not sad. It's a coping mechanism.

Maybe. But it seems to me that something much scarier is going on. Everyone shows grief differently, but death is not a block party. It gives me chills to see kids at funerals giving cheers and pouring beer instead of shedding tears.

NORRIS: Desiree Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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