In the stucco church on South Vermont, the five rows of pews are packed. Kids wedge between parents. Space meant for one holds three. Church hats and suits mingle with T-shirts and jeans.
A woman has died — a wife, mother, grandmother. The program fills a page. Long-lost cousins clutch each other and cry. Fresh air seems to diminish in supply. Hungry eyes track the few foil-covered casseroles making their way to the kitchen.
In the midst of it all appear eight immaculately dressed figures. The mourners’ heads turn. They nudge others to look.
One is a teenager. The rest are men. They wear black top hats and tails and burnt-orange ties and vests. Their backs are straight. On their hands are white gloves.
In a slow, swinging dance synchronized to gospel music, they strut as they carry the casket shoulder-high down the center of the room. Then in rotating pairs they stand guard beside it, one at each end, throughout songs, sermons, viewing.
An hour in, the pair up front remain still, eyes fixed forward. The senior pastor sternly scans the sanctuary, then rests his gaze on them.
“When you all want to know how real men dress, how real men conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.... This is how you act! At attention!” he thunders.
“Ladies,” he adds, “don’t they look good?”
The men work for Boyd Funeral Home, just north of the church in this Westmont neighborhood, where the median household income is just over $31,500 and the homicide rate is one of the highest in Los Angeles County.
Where there is need, there is business, so some call this stretch of the avenue Funeral Home Row. Candy Boyd, who runs the business started in 1963, knows the importance of finding ways to stand out.
At many African American funerals, death is spoken of as “homegoing.” The crush of grief combines with celebration of that reunion with God.
This year, Boyd had her funeral home’s Cadillac hearse outfitted with exterior speakers to start what she calls the “celebration of life” early by blasting gospel music en route to services. She also introduced the professional pallbearers, free with any funeral package.
As they leave each church, the men lift the casket and dance it out, smiling and high-stepping to joyful songs.
“Oh happy day. Oh happy day, when Jesus washed, Oh when he washed, When Jesus washed my sins away.”
The pomp offers relief. It also offers respect. To the dead. To their families. To any life lived, however meager. And not least, to the pallbearers themselves.
Joe Jackson showed up at the funeral home when he was 13 years old. Boyd set him to work sweeping the small chapel.
Ever since he was small, Joe has wanted to be a funeral director — at first because of the fancy cars. When he was 5, a neighbor was scared to go into the bedroom when her husband failed to get up as usual. Joe wasn’t. He is untroubled by death.
“He’d passed in his sleep, so it was peaceful,” he said.
Joe has written his own obituary. He’s chosen his casket — blue on the inside, white with gold handles on the outside. He’s set up a Facebook page for his future mortuary business, although he’s just 16 and in high school. Handsome and dapper, he was a natural for Boyd’s pallbearer troupe, the perfect crowd charmer and flower bearer.
As for the rest of the crew, she had no idea where she would find them.
Then Arthur Yarbrough came looking for a job: embalming, makeup, hair, whatever — he said he’d done it all back home in Atlanta. One day last fall, he had climbed onto a Greyhound bus heading west. By the time he reached L.A., he had $17 in his pocket. Right away, the 45-year-old found himself on skid row, sleeping at the Los Angeles Mission.
“Once I explained to Ms. Boyd that I was homeless, it seemed that it caused her to want to hire me because of my situation,” he said.
When you run a funeral home, you grow accustomed to life’s messiness. You see families fraying and fighting. You see promise cut short. You do your best to cover up the gunshot wounds, the smiley face of a slit throat. You hear a million sad stories of a million wrong turns that led to a corpse in the coroner’s office.
Boyd — known to most people as Lady Boyd — didn’t judge. She urged Yarbrough to seek out more pallbearers.
He found Ricardo Beltran, 54, who would safeguard Yarbrough’s wallet and other personal effects when he showered at the mission. Beltran had been a cook before a drug felony landed him in prison for five years. By the time he got out, his wife had left him. He had nowhere to stay.
By the time Yarbrough approached Beltran, he had graduated from a training program and gotten a part-time job as a mission custodian, cleaning soiled skid row sidewalks for pay. He said he would give pallbearing a try.
In his search for work, Yarbrough had made use of the Chrysalis Center on Main Street. At the center, if you get a job, you can come back and ring the office success bell. When Yarbrough did that, he told other job seekers that they could be professional pallbearers too.
Marteze Gilmore, 32, had bounced around the country growing up, stuck for stretches in boys’ homes and group homes. He was used to new jobs. He’d worked at a chemical plant and been a telemarketer and a truck driver. He was familiar with death too, he said. He’d had people die in his arms.
But when he heard Yarbrough talking at Chrysalis that day, he hesitated. “I was like, oh, no. A funeral home? I’m not sure about that.”
Now Gilmore, using moves he extrapolates from high school dance classes and ROTC, is the team’s choreographer, drillmaster and pursuer of synchronized perfection.
In the funeral home’s garage, where the men rehearse, he calls out orders — “All right, ready positions. Feet together. Hold your heads up. Casket face, about face, forward face” — and makes the men practice the dance steps in easy counts of four and eight again and again until they achieve muscle memory.
Before they leave for a service, the men line up for inspection. Ties get straightened. Lint is removed. Collars are smoothed. After each service, they gather to critique each miscue.
They treat pallbearing more as calling than a job that helps make ends meet.
“I think it gives joy to the family to see us perform like that,” Beltran said. “And it makes me feel better toward myself. I feel more positive when I’m dressed up like that.”
Yarbrough said he felt the same way. “For me personally, it brings a new sense of dignity and respect to my life. It lets me know that in spite of my situation, I’m still able to contribute to somebody else’s situation in a positive manner.”
But a couple of months ago, Yarbrough slipped off the radar. He didn’t come to work. He didn’t call. He missed weeks of rehearsals and funerals. When he eventually surfaced, it was too late. His spot had been filled.
Beltran said he saw Yarbrough recently, but his friend just walked on by. He’s no longer in the temporary housing he’d found. He’s probably back on the streets.
Boyd is disappointed but philosophical. That’s life, she said. Life is complicated.
Professional pallbearers can be found at some African American funeral homes down South, where many of the elderly people who die in this part of the city were born.
Joe said he’d seen them in Florida, where he helped out summers in his aunt’s funeral business. “It wasn’t like this,” he said. “They wouldn’t dance. They would just carry it in and they would be very stiff and very boring. Cali brings another twist to it.”
The pallbearers perform in large churches with many pews but few mourners, and in small ones where people spill onto the sidewalk outside.
Gilmore, who moves with a born dancer’s grace, often acts out the lyrics of a song as he leads the processional. At gravesides, the men perform a final salute, tipping their top hats in unison. On the way to a funeral, they sometimes stop to do a sidewalk serenade.
At one recent service, a woman lunged at her father’s body in the casket and then fell jelly-legged into her own children’s arms. In the church, she keened. But half an hour later, when the pallbearers danced outside her father’s home, she was clapping and cheering and swaying, holding up her phone to take photos.
Cars stopped. A crowd gathered. All the neighbors came out. The man who died had not been rich, but who would know?