‘We’re tired of burying young people,’ says Durham funeral home director
Franklin O. Hanes sat in his office at Hanes Funeral Service, propped his elbows on his desk, rested his chin in his hands and let out a deep sigh.
“I had two funerals Saturday,” he said during an interview last month. “One was 26. The other was 28.”
Since opening the small funeral home in east Durham in 1994, Hanes has seen many untimely deaths related to public-health issues: The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The crack cocaine crisis in the ’90s. And deadly gang violence that has plagued Durham for years now.
Hanes, a soft-spoken Baptist preacher, says he handles the funeral arrangements for several murder victims each year. His work offers a glimpse into the gang-related deaths of young, mostly African-American men in the Triangle’s second-largest city.
“’Retaliate’ — that’s (their) word,” he said of gangs. “I was down at a city council meeting one night, and I told somebody, ‘I’m tired and all the undertakers are tired of burying young people.’”
Durham has seen an increase in the number of homicides this year — 33 through November, according to police. That’s up from 21 in all of 2017 but down from 42 the prior year.
Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said last month the increase is related to gang activity in the city.
Forty-three percent of homicides in Durham between 2009 and 2017 involved victims or suspects who were gang members, according to a report by the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, which provides services related to public safety.
Gang members were victims or suspects in 74 percent of all violent crimes involving a gun during the same period, the report says, and there were 1,319 known gang members living in Durham as of April.
Hanes said in November he had handled funeral arrangements for seven murder victims this year. A funeral can be difficult regardless of the circumstances, Hanes said, but services for known gang members pose additional challenges.
“I don’t know if I’m burying a Blood or a Crip until I start fixing them up and the mom will say, ‘Naw, we can’t put that red on ‘em, we got to put blue on ‘em,’” Hanes said.
The threat of retaliation from opposing gangs led Hanes to put in place some rules for those who attend a funeral: Don’t wear gang-affiliated colors. Don’t fight. And don’t bring guns.
Hanes said he avoids two-day funeral services for known gang members, opting instead for a one-hour viewing before the funeral. Police officers often attend.
“Police are all around the church and when we go to the cemetery, you see them standing in the cemetery,” Hanes said.
Some of the families he works with are “repeats.”
“This family’s son got killed and then his momma’s sister’s boy got killed and then somebody else’s son got killed, and that’s how I kind of know all of these people,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll bury one and three years later, I’ll bury the other one, in the same family.”
Many of the murder victims buried at Hanes Funeral Home were killed by gunfire.
Michael Brooks, 27, of Durham was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds in Gainesville, Fla., in late October. Jeremiah Williams, 28, was shot and killed in Carrboro on Nov. 2. Jake Spruiell, 44, was fatally shot Nov. 6 in south Durham.
‘The older undertakers wouldn’t do it’
Hanes, 68, is married with two adult sons. He moved from Winston-Salem in 1975 to lead the Ambassador Cathedral Church in east Durham. He left in 1985 to serve as pastor of Zion Wall Baptist Church in Durham, and now he pastors the Greater Canaan Baptist Church that he founded in Mebane.
Hanes Funeral Service is housed in a squat, white-brick building on South Driver Street. East Durham is seeing gentrification, Hanes said, but there are still pockets of crime and illegal activity.
When the funeral home opened 24 years ago, Hanes said, most of his business came from people he knew and poor families, including those of gang members.
“The older undertakers wouldn’t do it,” Hanes said of burying people involved with gangs, adding that he still has to wait months to get paid in some cases.
“The reason we bury them is because we are the only funeral homes who accept them at the costs families are able to pay,” said Kenneth Holloway, who owns Holloway Memorial Funeral Home on N.C. 55 in Durham. “If somebody comes through the door, we try to help people. It’s not about the dollar amount, it’s about trying to serve people.”
Holloway said he has buried five homicide victims this year, including a 32-year-old man who was stabbed to death in Raleigh. He said drugs are typically at the center of gang disputes that turn deadly.
He points a finger, too, at what he calls mainstream media’s glorification of drugs and gang culture.
“They rape the community,” Holloway said of some drug dealers. “Then they become a bail bondsman or open up a barbershop or buy a dump truck. But how many people were killed before you cleaned up your money?”
Holloway said families need to take more responsibility.
“We parents have to get the guns out of the house,” he said. “We grandparents are housing kids who sell dope and let people run up in the house and kill them. Parents, grandparents, the whole community knows who (is) standing on the corner dealing. We have to start policing ourselves.”
‘That boy had a future’
More than 80 percent of gang members in Durham are African-American, according to the report by the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center. Eleven percent are white, and 8 percent are Hispanic.
The average age of gang members in Durham is 27, and most joined a gang in their late teens, the report says.
“Young people join gangs for various reasons,” Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn said in an email to The News & Observer. “Some join out of fear, others for a sense of belonging or appreciation.”
Glenn said gang violence and murder in the city are not new, calling violent behavior “ a national epidemic.”
Hanes said many of the murder victims he buries have three things in common: They’re young, they’re black, and their fathers were absent throughout their lives.
“Daddies don’t show,” Hanes said of funeral services. “Very seldom will you see a daddy.”
When Hanes looks into a casket at the body of a young man, he thinks, “That boy had a future in front of him.”
“My thing is to try to get rid of it,” Hanes said of the murders of young black men by their peers. “I try to get mommies and daddies to love their children, bring them to church and all that stuff. I tell them, ‘All you can do is rear ‘em up in the way they should go.’
“And I tell these guys that are sitting here, ‘You’re too young, you got your life in front of you. You can be what you want to be.’”
At the end of a funeral service, Hanes said, he gathers the mourners for prayer.
“There will be 120 people in front of the casket, the gang-bangers hugging each other,” he said. “And then others there too — everybody hugging and everybody crying, which is a good thing to see. But then when they leave there, it’s over.”
And then Hanes waits for the next call from a grief-stricken parent.