Large pictures of his two children, ages 6 and 9, sit on a table next to his desk. Although Spencer Leak Jr. enjoys looking
at the images, he often lays them down on the table when customers come into his office – out of respect for their loss of a child sometimes not much older than Leak’s offspring.
“You never get immune because every family is different,” says Leak Jr., a funeral home director at Leak and Sons Funeral Chapel.
Leak Jr. is the third generation of his family to work at the South Side funeral home, located at 7838 S. Cottage Grove Ave. and in Country Club at 18400 S. Pulaski Road.
Over the years, the family has helped bury many of the city’s homicide victims.
He estimates the funeral home handles about 25 percent of Chicago’s homicides; in all, it buries about 2,500 people a year.
“Two 16-year-olds shot last night in our area, most likely one of those families will be calling us,” Leak Jr. said earlier this spring.
The average age of the homicide victim buried from Leak and Sons: just 18.
Seeing young homicide victims has influenced the way Leak Jr. parents his two children.
He doesn’t allow his son to play with toy guns or listen to rap music, and neither child is allowed to visit a friend’s house with the only exception being to attend a birthday party.
“I grew up seeing every type of situation that can cause a person die,” Leak Jr. says. “Drowning, gun shots, stabbings, car crashes, I have seen it all.”
Leak Jr. had an interest in the family business early on. But as a father, he encourages his children to seek other careers.
Continuing a family tradition, Leak Jr. speaks at elementary school graduations across the South Side. That’s because he sees the death certificate of every young man he buries, and none of them has finished high school.
“I would speak at a high schools, but it’s too late,” he says. “You have to get the kids before they go to high school.”
Funerals can be expensive, so Leak Jr. says he doesn’t require immediate payment.
“We don’t ask about funds right away,” he says. “We let them tell us their situation first, and then we will figure something out, whether it’s a payment plan, reducing costs or calling insurance, we go the extra mile.”
Leak and Sons will cover funeral costs up to $5,000 for those waiting payment from the state’s Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which the families of homicide victims can tap.
But the funeral chapel doesn’t get reimbursed about 10 percent of the time – when officials determine the victim was committing a crime at the time of his death, which means the state fund can’t be tapped.
The funeral home has handled some of Chicago’s saddest cases, including the burial earlier this year of 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins.
Leak Jr. says he wishes the political powers-that-be would have attended little Jonyiah’s services like they did Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral.
“Despite the father supposedly being in a gang, that 6-month-old baby didn’t deserve to die,” he says. “Whatever grievances (officials) had with this baby’s father could have waited until the child was laid to rest; the same people that were there (at Hadiya’s funeral) should have been here.”
Leak Jr. recalls Jonylah’s family being emotionally distraught and hardly saying a word.
“The father cried and cried. You asked me if I was affected by my job; that affected me.”
Funeral Director Denisha Gholston of Gatling’s Chapel Inc. experiences that same sadness.
Although running a funeral home is something she wanted to do since she was a child, she’s never gotten used to burying homicide victims.
Working in the funeral business makes her appreciate her family even more.
“What you see here makes you love a little more because you just never know, you never know when your life can be taken at any moment,” Gholston says. “So you give all your love now and as much time as you can, quality time, because these things are important.”
Gholston, the mother to three, says she chose not to raise her children in the inner city to keep them away from the violence.
Like Leak, Gatling’s Chapel – located at 10133 S. Halstead St and in suburban South Holland at 1200 E. 162 St. – handles many of the city’s victims of violence.
Gholston estimates almost 40 percent of their burials are homicides.
“You feel different when someone’s life was taken verses when it’s their time to go.”
This story is part of a week-long series about homicides in Chicago. ChicagoTalks, a news outlet operated by Columbia College’s Journalism Department, undertook a semester-long investigation of the topic funded with a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. ChicagoTalks is publishing additional stories throughout the week. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail project editor Suzanne McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more from this series:
- Argument over basketball game takes parents’ only child
- Family seeks answers after 8th grader’s murder
- Family, friends of murdered Uptown businesswoman say they have been left in the dark
- Killer on the line
- Lonely anniversary
- For some, the grieving never ends
- Families say silence the norm after Chicago homicides
- Homicide victim’s mother sees progress in Englewood
- Giving up on justice
- Families question support after loved ones’ killings
- Unsolved homicide not forgotten
- Final call to a friend