The room was empty except for the two of them: Fateemah Jones, and the lifeless body of a 3-year-old girl.
Jones, a funeral director, wept as she opened a jar of nail polish, and painted the girl’s fingernails an iridescent shade of cotton candy.
Day after day, week after week, Jones bears witness to the end of life from her perch inside a pair of funeral homes — Paradise Gardens in Trainer, not far from Marcus Hook, and Escamillio D. Jones Funeral Home, which her husband operates in the Juniata section of Northeast Philadelphia.
Increasingly, the bodies of the dead are riddled with bullet wounds, ever larger and seemingly more numerous. The dates of birth and death listed on the covers of funeral programs continue to contract, and now seem incomprehensibly narrow, lives cut impossibly short. There are younger and younger mourners, smaller and smaller caskets, and more and more moments where Jones is left alone with the last earthly remains of a child.
Jones, who’s 40 and has been in the funeral business for a decade, has tended to the bodies of more young people than she would care to remember over the years. But she will never forget the 3-year-old who was struck by a stray bullet in 2014 while sitting on a porch and wound up being placed in a child-size coffin with pink pastel fingernails.
“I remember crying while I was painting her nails and dressing her, preparing for her services,” Jones told me earlier this week. “I remember when her mom came in and the little girl was dressed in all white, and her mom just kept saying: ‘My baby looks like an angel.’”
I listened to Jones with admiration for the humanity she brought to her work — grace despite the grief — and I couldn’t help but wonder: Why aren’t we all doing more to care for America’s children before they succumb to gun violence in our communities?
Our inaction has already had bleak consequences. A recent analysis of demographic data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that gun violence became the leading cause of death for children in 2020, surpassing car accidents, which was No. 1 for the last 21 years.
(In Philadelphia alone, the number of children and teens who were shot has increased with the overall rise in gun violence, with more than 100 young bodies ripped apart by bullets so far this year, 25 of them fatally.)
The news, which wasn’t really news to people in Jones’ line of work, generated some modest headlines last month, but led to no discernible action.
“It’s all so sad,” Jones said. “Now, on the daily, I’m looking at death certificates that say homicide ... gunshot wound after gunshot wound. And they’re very young.”
And yet we’ve heard nonstop this week about the importance of unborn lives since the publication of a draft Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that upheld the right to an abortion. (Court officials confirmed the authenticity of the draft, which was leaked to journalists at Politico, but said that it doesn’t represent the final decision by the justices.)
The folks cheering the loudest at this news are all very obsessed with women’s bodies — they’re just never quite as preoccupied with the bullet-riddled bodies of children and teenagers.
God bless America, where guns now have more rights than women and children.
It feels as if that’s been the plan all along.
In the last few days, I’ve thought a lot about a phrase coined in 2018 by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. “The cruelty is the point,” he said in an essay by that same name. In it, and subsequent essays that were later incorporated into a book, Serwer wrote about former President Donald Trump’s brand of campaign rhetoric and gamesmanship as a manifestation of American politics that seeks to demonize certain groups as a way to justify denying them basic rights.
In this case, that means denying thousands the right to access safe, legal abortions by gutting what has been settled law for 50 years.
Think about it: For decades, antiabortion activists have poured money into political campaigns and have waged a concerted campaign to elect officials (and appoint judges) who would bring us to precisely this point. They’ve held “Right to Life” marches and staged rallies and demonstrations. And even their rhetoric has sought to vilify their opponents as “anti-life.”
And now, it appears they’ve been successful.
Imagine if that same kind of passion, money, energy, and political action had been poured into efforts to eliminate gun violence and protect the children who are already here.
The court’s final decision on the fate of Roe probably won’t come until late June or early July, but those who believe in the “sanctity of life” are already plotting to dismantle even more protections.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said on Wednesday he wants to challenge a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to offer free public education to all children — including those of undocumented immigrants.
On the same day, lawmakers in Louisiana moved forward with a proposal to make abortion punishable as a homicide.
In the meantime, Jones and countless other funeral directors like her continue with the tender and sorrowful work of burying America’s children.