CHICAGO — The funeral director and the barber bent over the red coffin as they applied the finishing touches on the body of fourth-grader Tyshawn Lee.
The gunshot wounds had been sealed and smoothed with wax, including one to each temple. Cuts and scars near his eyes had been covered over.
Schyler Chandler picked up a pair of clippers, leaned over the body and let them buzz for a few seconds.
“This is gonna be his family’s last time seeing him, you know?” said Chandler, a large but soft-spoken man. “I just want to make him look as best as possible.”
In death, Tyshawn was treated with the kindness he was not afforded at the end of his life. From the South Side to the West Side and back for his last haircut, final dressing and motorcycle ride to the church, Tyshawn was gently held by adults along the way who wondered: Isn’t anyone off-limits?
Tyshawn was the second 9-year-old boy to be targeted and killed by gangs within the last 15 months in Chicago.
The boy’s family granted the Chicago Tribune permission to witness the funeral preparations and bring home what happens after a child is executed in a Chicago alley.
At the House of Branch funeral home in Lawndale, Tyshawn lay in a double-breasted white tuxedo with a red bow tie, red flower over his heart and red gator-skin shoes, size 5. A red fedora sat toward the top of his fire-engine red casket, which was the length of an average adult’s wingspan.
“I’ll lift his head, put the plastic underneath,” Phillip Reid, the 24-year-old funeral director, told Chandler.
Reid slowly raised Tyshawn’s head while Chandler slid a piece of clear plastic underneath.
He cut hair from atop the boy’s head and applied it with an adhesive over the temples. Then he trimmed the grafted hair so it matched the rest of the head. Each touch was deliberate. He paused over his work, looked and touched the clippers to the hair again.
“Basically just a normal haircut that I would do for any one of my regular customers,” Chandler explained. “He just needed a little extra attention, that’s all.
“Gotta get (his) last haircut,” he said. “Send ’em off right. I feel like it’s my duty.”
Chandler guided the clippers along the hairline, touching here and there. He flipped them upward and touched a few high points atop the boy’s head.
“It’s hard stomaching, you know. He didn’t have a chance to grow, or he never experienced a lot of stuff by him being so young,” Chandler said. “Just watching, you know, how my son plays and the things that he does, and then me just looking at him — you know you just kinda feel it. Even though I don’t know him personally. But just a kid, a child.”
On Nov. 9, the morning of Tyshawn’s wake, Troy Franklin arrived at the West Side funeral home all in black.
Franklin, at 48, was the oldest of the men at House of Branch entrusted with Tyshawn’s care. He was a calm presence among those helping with the arrangements.
Franklin walked a pair of white cotton gloves into the room where Reid was already working and ripped off the plastic packaging.
Reid lifted Tyshawn’s right hand and struggled a bit to fit the glove over the blue latex glove already on the boy’s hand. Once the first finger was in, the others were a bit easier. He did it again with the left hand.
The gloves matched the tuxedo, something Tyshawn might have worn to a prom. In other ways, the wake and funeral would be a reminder of what the boy would never become.
At his feet would be a basketball he would never dribble for a varsity team. Near the coffin would be a photo of a younger Tyshawn in a cap and gown, not much different from what he would have donned graduating from high school. Another photo showed Tyshawn in a vest and shirt, as if dressed for a job interview he would never have.
When the gloves were on, Reid sprayed the boy’s face with a touch of moisturizer. He tugged the white overlay around the inside of the casket tight, then folded it back into the casket over Tyshawn’s body. He replaced two pieces of tissue over his face and closed the casket door just enough to leave a two-inch gap to guard against sudden changes in humidity and temperature.
The pair loaded the casket into the hearse and drove to the Haven of Rest church. It was locked. Reid waited while Franklin set off in search of a janitor or security guard.
Reid and Franklin brought the boy to the front of the chapel, with its simple stained glass letting in light from the south. A florist laid an array of white carnations, lilies and roses over the casket while church and funeral staff awaited the Lee family.
Just after 2 p.m., Reid and Franklin lifted the flowers and mounted them on a stand above the casket, lifted the lid and affixed a red lamp to it just above Tyshawn’s head. Reid set up iron easels on each side. For flowers or pictures to come.
The family arrived around 2:30 p.m. for time alone with Tyshawn.
His mother, Karla, 25, sobbed as she followed a minister leading the family in prayer in a slow walk down the center of the empty sanctuary. She wore a ball cap that covered part of her face, and a hood over that.
After half an hour next to the casket, they sat. A crowd filed past, often nodding or silently acknowledging the family before being ushered out the other side. Only relatives were able to remain in the sanctuary.
An older relative kept kids in winter coats occupied a few rows behind the first. Others took phone calls. Florists brought more flowers. More easels. Larger photos of Tyshawn.
Every 15 or 20 minutes, Karla stepped to the casket and bent over her only son, standing alone while this small world carried on around her.
Alone, she stood, the top of the coffin at her waist.
Alone, she drew in deep breaths while she looked down.
Alone, she leaned over the casket with her face inches from her son’s while mourners came and left behind her.
Just before 6, a few minutes after a minister announced they would close soon, Martel Lee Thomas Sr. and his three kids walked into the church past two dozen rows of pews, the last family to view Tyshawn’s body. Martel Jr., 11, carried the youngest, 3-year-old Ken’Del. Chanel, 10, walked between her brothers and father.
Their father’s godsister was killed in an ongoing conflict between two Gresham neighborhood mobs that may have claimed Tyshawn as well.
Martel Sr. read aloud the words embroidered in red against the white interior of the casket: “Sunrise January 23, 2006. Sunset November 02, 2015.”
“‘Sunrise’ — that’s when he was born,” he explained. “‘Sunset’ — that’s when he died.”
His children said nothing.
“I didn’t bring you all up here to scare you, I brought you up here to understand,” he said. “You not gonna be like this.”
His children said nothing.
“He’s all right now,” he said. “It’s us we gotta worry about now.”
His children said nothing. He looked into the casket.
“God bless you, man.”
They walked back down the aisle.
On the morning of the funeral Nov. 10, Reid polished the casket under fluorescent lights in the garage hours before it would be carried up the steps into St. Sabina Church on the city’s South Side. A touch of Lysol, then wiped away.
“Here, over here,” co-worker Austin Hood said. Reid had missed a spot.
The men wore gray suits and gray gloves. They were running behind, and they rushed around getting flowers into the hearse and the casket ready for the trip south.
Ron Roach guided his black motorcycle pulling a two-wheeled glass-walled black carriage to the edge of the driveway. Reid wheeled the casket out onto the sidewalk touching Roosevelt Road so they could load it into the carriage that would carry Tyshawn to St. Sabina.
It was sunny and unseasonably warm for mid-November. The engine on the motorcycle drowned out the playful voices of children running outside Saucedo Scholastic Academy on 24th Boulevard.
Four men — Reid, Hood, Franklin and Tony Brown — carried Tyshawn up the stairs into the church through a crowd of quiet onlookers and media.
A line had formed outside long before the front doors were opened to the public. Just before 10 a.m., the Rev. Michael Pfleger stood between two aisles of pews at the front, alone but surrounded by movement.
Hood straightened out a few wrinkles in Reid’s suit coat. Florists brought in flowers. Everyone had questions.
Pfleger stood back, not moving, while Hood and Reid fidgeted with easels. The photo of Tyshawn in a cap and gown. The photo of Tyshawn in a vest with a tie. Two basketballs in the casket.
After a few minutes, Pfleger stepped forward and touched the child. His hand rested on the boy for a few seconds. No mourners had been allowed in yet. No one said anything to him.
When the line finally worked its way past Tyshawn’s body, faculty from Tyshawn’s school joined the viewing. A woman with a small yellow ribbon pinned to her shirt by a round button with Tyshawn’s photo walked away holding back sobs.
A girl hurried away with a tissue held to her right eye, squinting through her left, struggling to hide a frown. She was no older than 8, and guided by an older woman’s hand behind her.
Kids cried, the looks on their faces showing they understood the grief but not the why. Adults looked more measured, more composed but more weary.
Tyshawn’s mother wore the same colors as her son: A white dress and a red hat. As the family had the first of their last looks at the boy, Reid stood at the front, working to both console and keep order. The boy’s mother and grandmother each made a final trip to the casket before the service began.
Karla Lee rested her arms and head on the front of the pew and watched as six gray-gloved hands closed the casket, their hands moving in unison, the red lid between thumb and forefinger as the grandmother shrieked next to her.
Pfleger guided the assembled mass — hundreds jammed into pews, along walls and upstairs — through a fiery sermon in the tone and style he is known for.
Tyshawn was a kid, he said, doing what kids do. Going to play basketball. Steps from his grandmother’s home.
He echoed what many have said: Children are supposed to be off-limits. He spoke of a new low, a sense that something has shifted in the city.
“You’re a coward,” he said of the killer. “You’re a punk.” The contempt in his voice rolled from his lips as he emphasized “punk.”
Karla Lee rested her arms and head against the pew. A few feet away, across the aisle, Tyshawn’s father, Pierre Stokes, leaned forward. Both bowed their heads as Valencia Lee read the obituary.
James Lee, the stepfather who took Tyshawn in five years ago, spoke for just a minute between two others who delivered long, impassioned pleas for understanding and peace. He joked how he wouldn’t have as much to say.
“For everybody that knew Tyshawn, he was a fun-loving kid. And he didn’t do nothing to nobody, all he wanted to do was play and have fun. Ride his bike,” he said.
“I’m gonna miss him. And (there’s) nothing I couldn’t or wouldn’t do for him.”
Here he shook his head, pinched the microphone, and looked toward the casket.
“At a loss for words, so … I just … all I can say is he’s gone but not forgotten. Rest in heaven, Tysha
(Chicago Tribune photographer E. Jason Wambsgans contributed to this report.)