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Philadelphia's increased gun violence means more burial services

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Philadelphia is going through an unrelenting surge in gun violence. More than 1,800 people have been shot this year, and the city is on pace to set a new annual record for homicides. For funeral directors, the grim numbers mean more burials. Aaron Moselle from member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: Ask Imam Suetwedien Muhammad how he knows Philadelphia is experiencing a historic surge in gun violence, and he'll give you three chilling answers. First, he's officiating far more funerals. Before the pandemic, he averaged three services a month; he's now doing roughly five services a week.

And of those five that you're doing on average each week, how many of those would you say are gunshot victims?

SUETWEDIEN MUHAMMAD: Every last one of them.

MOSELLE: All of them.

MUHAMMAD: All of them. Every last one of them.

MOSELLE: Second, the monthly electric bills at the Masjid Muhammad leads have doubled during the pandemic. That's because more families are using the facility for their repasts, in part because it's considered safer than inviting people back to the neighborhood where the shooting occurred. But it's perhaps the cleric's final piece of evidence that's most striking. Muhammad says the violence is so unrelenting that he's in the process of buying land from local cemeteries so he knows there will be a Muslim burial plot when he needs one.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, we're definitely going to need it. You know, we're definitely going to need it. And the other thing is, is that it's important to us to try to bury all the Muslims together.

MOSELLE: All of it weighs heavily on Muhammad, a longtime anti-violence advocate. He says it's particularly hard because many of the funerals he's leading are for teenagers and young adults.

MUHAMMAD: You know, I try to give it to God. I try to talk it out with God because it is so disheartening, and it's also so lonely.

MOSELLE: West Philly funeral director Michael Forrest can relate. He says he does his best not to fixate on what he sees on the job.

MICHAEL FORREST: I mean, I would have PTSD. I couldn't do it. You go home, and you reset.

MOSELLE: The work still takes a toll, and he says it's more taxing when he's helping a family that's lost a loved one to gun violence.

FORREST: Emotionally, physically, the time, effort dealing with the families, their emotions, as they unpack their anger issues, the regrets, the guilt. And they all come, and they put it in my lap. I don't necessarily get blamed for it, but sometimes I'm the punching bag because I'm the one that they can lash out upon because I'm sitting there. I'm an easy target.

MOSELLE: Arranging more funerals for gunshot victims has also made Forrest's business more dangerous. He says there's always the possibility of someone showing up at a church or a cemetery to fire off a few shots, particularly if the murder was committed by a member of a rival street group.

FORREST: Some want revenge. Some want to make a point. Some want to scare the family. There's so many different reasons as to why these things happen.

MOSELLE: It's unclear what's driving this current surge in gun violence. Advocates say the pandemic is partially to blame because it's meant more time indoors and online, increasing the chances of a social media dispute escalating into a fatal shooting that sets off a cycle of retaliatory violence. Either way, Forrest doesn't think things are going to get better anytime soon.

FORREST: I think we need to take a page out of the books of old and just learn conflict resolution and just be a little kinder and a little more understanding. With some dialogue, you know, I don't know, some meditation, maybe we can get through this.

MOSELLE: For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "SLEEPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.