Anne Strainchamps: The truth is we don't all get the luxury of planning our own death. Tyrone Muhammad is the funeral director at Peace and Glory Home for Funerals in Newark, New Jersey. Known as Muhammad the Mortician, he's using some surprising strategies to show people the true effect of the epidemic of violence that's killing young, black men. Charles Monroe-Kane sat down to talk with him.
Charles Monroe-Kane: You recently wrote on your Facebook wall, "Tired of embalming so many young people. It's sickening. I wish you could all see my world." Show us. What do you want us to see?
Tyrone Muhammad: I want you to see that when the young people come into the funeral home, and the count is hundreds, should I say nearly into the thousands, that I see on a continuous basis. Most people see, when they come to a funeral home, they see the person deceased-looking, serene, very peaceful, but that's really just an illusion because we put them in the casket they're riddled with bullet holes. People need to see that when these young men come into our funeral home, who actually have been murdered, they come in there with bullet holes in their heads almost shot off. And our job is to give their family the lasting memory of them, so they need to see what we see. We need to see when the holes got to be patched up with that cold cream and that mortuary wax and that hot heat that I take from a stove that a woman would use to do their hair, as I melt the makeup and put that on there to cover up the bullet wounds, and how we plaster their head back together. We do reconstruction on their faces. And to really look at the eyes of the deceased because a lot of these young brothers, particularly black men, that I see on a continuous basis, once again, their eyes tell us a story. A lot of them were afraid because when they get murdered, oftentimes they get stuck and locked in and frozen into that death look, and you can kind of actually interpret what they were seeing prior to them being murdered. So when you see what I see, and I'm overwhelmed and I'm passionate about this platform, I shed tears most of the time.
Monroe-Kane: Because at the front lines.
Muhammad: Absolutely. Absolutely on the front line.
Monroe-Kane: Now, you've taken this to the streets and to the Internet. I want to start with the streets. Can you please describe for our listeners, can you describe your van?
Muhammad: I have a van, a cargo van, that I turned into a Stop the Violence Campaign van. It's wrapped with a picture of Tupac Shakur on it. It says, "Stop the killing," and we have an article that was placed in The Star Ledger about the murder of young, black men wrapped around it. It's very beautiful. And, also, I have a casket mounted on the top of it with flashing lights, and everywhere I go it's a showstopper. I don't do it to be a showstopper, I do it as a shock value to let the people know that this is the type of state of emergency that we're in. And inside that van I also have another casket. I also have pictures of people I embalm. I show the bullet wounds. I don't show the person's face, but I get very up and close pictures of the bullet wounds, and, i'm telling you, people are moved by that. I've seen grown men, the hardest thug, the hardest so-called criminal, young black men in the street, I see them moved by that. It's very compelling.
Monroe-Kane: Now, you have, in addition to taking your van out and doing what you do, which is extremely strong and powerful, you have an amazing Facebook presence. I'm going to read a couple of quotes just recently from your Facebook page. "Message to the youth: embalming fluid was not made for human consumption." And this one I like: "Swag counts for nothing when you're laying in a casket." And one that's very powerful: "Don't let your son's first time putting on a suit be in a casket." Wow. It seems like such death and violence.
Muhammad: I'm going to keep forward, Charles, with this messages, with this platform. I believe that the ancestors have given me this message and I'm going to take it wherever I go. Embalming fluid, like you said, why do you want to smoke embalming fluid? Embalming fluid creates havoc on your brain cells. It's irreversible. When you smoke dip, as our young people are smoking"embalming fluid mixed with marijuana"and other methods that they're smoking, why would you want to smoke that? Your brain cells can't come back their self and you're never going to be the true person that you once were. Why do you want to smoke embalming fluid? Swag counts for nothing. I don't care how cool you are. I don't care how cool it is to be in the game, to call yourself a crip or a blood, to be out there thinking you're about that life because swag counts for nothing when you're lying in the casket. All that is done. Your homies aren't there.
Monroe-Kane: When there's a funeral at your funeral home, and this is all spinning in your head, and you're angry, and you just fixed up a bullet hole in a young man's head again, and you get to the funeral and there's the kid in the gang colors, Courvoisier that he wants to pour in their thing, or a joint that he wants to put in the casket, what do you do?
Muhammad: Oh, no. Man, that's an awesome question. I immediately go to the parent. As a matter of fact, when I'm making funeral arrangements with the parents, when it comes to a murder homicide, I tell the family, "From my experience, this is what's going to happen, you're going to have an influx of a lot of young friends. Those friends are going to have bandanas and t-shirts on. They're going to want to take pictures." Now, this is the crazy thing about that, Charles, is that they're taking pictures now with their faces next to the dead person's face. It's called the selfie.
Muhammad: They're putting it out"if that is not foolishness"putting in drugs, throwing up gang signs, putting their bandanas on there. So I tell the parents, "What do you want to do?" And a lot of times what the parents do, they tell us they don't want that. And how do I get that message across to them without putting myself in harm's way with them?
Monroe-Kane: Right, right.
Muhammad: I tell the mother to come up, and the mother stands up and tells them she doesn't want any bandanas, no foolishness going on, no drugs, no Hennessy, no pictures taken. So the mother would tell them that, and, I'll tell you, 9 times out of 10 people respect that.
Monroe-Kane: Wow. You know, I'm listening to you talking and I'm thinking anthropologically almost in my head and I think, oh, my god, have funerals become a right of passage to manhood for young black men?
Muhammad: Yes. Absolutely. Unfortunately, for a young black man it's not the going to college and do something great for the community and for self, it's either going to prison or going to the cemetery. That's the right of passage. If you're not doing that you're considered a punk. If you're not doing that you're considered a sellout, a clown, and everything else. You understand what I'm saying, Charles?
Monroe-Kane: Yeah, I do. But it seems like, for young black men, that they've become desensitized. That community has become desensitized to death.
Muhammad: That is absolutely correct. Of course, because they were made to be that way. I mean, everything right now is glorifying death. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Monroe-Kane: Yeah, I understand.
Muhammad: We all got to die, but we don't need to die this type of death. If this was going on in any other community, if it was going on in a white community, Italian, Jewish, Asian, Hispanic, if they were going on with an alarming rate of men who are dying the way they are in the black community it would be an outrage.
Monroe-Kane: Did you think when you entered this profession I mean, you were called to be a funeral director, a very honorable thing to do that this was going to be this political for you? This made you into a radical. Does this surprise you?
Muhammad: No, it has not surprised me because I've been this way all my life. I am a funeral director and a community activist. I've been this way since I was 12 years old. And the reason why I was this way: my father was murdered. My father was stabbed to death in Jersey City. He was murdered. And at 13 years old my mother bought me a microphone and a speaker box, and I was on the corners of Jersey City speaking out against violence. I didn't really know too much what I was saying at the time, being that age, but all I knew was that I didn't want to see another person, such as my father who was murdered at the hand of another black man, in this type of situation. So when I became a funeral director, I was already a community activist. So this compelled me to put the two together. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Monroe-Kane: Right. Absolutely. Is there something you feel like you'd want to say right now to the community that's listening to this, which I think mostly is the white community? Something you want to say to them so they can understand?
Muhammad: Absolutely. And, Charles, I thank you for the opportunity for even allowing me to be on your platform.
Monroe-Kane: Thank you.
Muhammad: So, those who are listening, you know, particularly in the white community, we're all human beings. We're all separated by whatever ethnicity, but we're all human beings at the end of the day, and I know there's a lot of sincere white folks out there. I just want to let you know that we are in a fight for our life, for our survival. We are dying by the tens of thousands. We are putting so many young black men into the graveyard cemeteries due to violence. We have an alarming rate of young African Americans going to an early demise. We buried over 57,255 black men between the ages of 18 to 24 in the cemetery, and out of those 57,255 black young men (and the number is still rising), 90 percent of them have been murdered by other black men. So we're asking you to join onto this very important mission because if we don't all start caring, if it's just the black community, certainly, the black man and woman is going to be up in the Smithsonian Museum. And people are going to walk by and say, "Who were they? What type of people were they?" Well, they're going to tell them they were African Americans in America and they're gone. And some are going to say, "Well, how did they go? Why are they not here anymore?" "Because they killed themselves off."
Monroe-Kane: Thank you very much, Tyrone. God bless.
Muhammad: God bless you too. Thank you, Charles.
Strainchamps: Tyrone Muhammad is the funeral director at Peace and Glory Home for Funeral in Newark, New Jersey, and he's also the founder of Morticians that Care.