The motorcade of 29 hearses represented just 7 percent of Philadelphia's 391 homicide victims this year.
As the shiny cavalcade of silver-and-black vehicles snaked through city streets yesterday, few acknowledged its presence and even fewer bothered to question its purpose.
Funeral processions in Philadelphia are as much of a daily occurrence as the homicide rate that precipitates them. Perhaps people have become desensitized to the motorists' parade of mourning, but 29 hearses in a row - that should have given even the most hardened resident pause.
Instead, the motorcade elicited an odd array of reactions. Uncomfortable children giggled at the sight, young men toughened up in its presence and matronly women leaving church shook their heads as matronly women do.
But far too many averted their eyes, hid under their hoods or turned down the first visible side street.
The hearse motorcade was organized by the Quaker State Funeral Directors Association, a local chapter of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, the largest and oldest association of African-American funeral directors, said Gregory Burrell, vice president of the national association. He is the director of Terry Funeral Home Inc., on Haverford Avenue near 42nd Street.
The purpose of the mock procession was to draw awareness to the city's homicide rate and to show that just because funeral directors deal in the business of death doesn't mean they approve when it's untimely dispensed.
"I talk to people all the time and they say, 'I'm sure your business is doing well,' " Burrell said.
"You know what? We'd rather not have to do this business. This is not fun for us."
Burrell has worked in the city for eight years and said this year was one of the roughest he has seen.
"I've probably had eight victims [of gun violence] this year and they all hit home," he said. "When you see parents come into this funeral home and they're grieving the way some of these parents grieve, you can't help but think of your own children."
Vince Baker, another organizer of yesterday's event and a third-generation director of Baker Funeral Home, on Broad Street near Norris, said funeral directors sometimes donate a service or provide one at a reduced rate for families in need.
"Even though we're in the death-care industry, we're not profiting from this violence," he said. "Nobody is."
Two people who acknowledged the motorcade with a small and somber wave to every driver were Fred and Othniel Tookes, brothers who've been running a fruit-and-produce stand for 30 years at 25th and Diamond streets.
They figure they see about 10 funerals a week pass by their stand. They've come to know the directors, and they've come to know the likely answers to their questions.
"I always ask the guys 'Who's laying up there?' " Fred Tookes said. "Most of the time it's a 22- or-23-year-old kid. Once in a while you'll hear it's someone in their 80s, but not often."
They praised the purpose of the motorcade but lamented its route, which took mostly main roads, and its awkward silence.
With no sounds emanating from the motorcade and no signs except for the words "Living is a choice - choose life" scrawled on the roofs of the hearses where no one could see, the motorcade's message was lost to many.
"They're too quiet; nobody knows what's happening," Fred Tookes said. "They should be going into . . . the neighborhoods, into the bullet-riddled areas and not on the main streets."
His brother, Othniel, agreed.
"This is something the kids should really be seeing," he said. "They should stop the hearses and let the kids peep in and see what the end really looks like." *