If an obituary is the last measure of respect offered to someone who died, then homicide victims often leave this world dishonored.
Cletus Lyman, a Philadelphia lawyer, grew up in Hazleton, Pa., where everyone, from baker to banker, it seemed, got an obituary in the local paper, regardless of how they lived or died.
That’s not always the case for people whose sudden, violent deaths are often reduced to passing mentions in the news with few, if any, details.
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There were many times when Lyman would read about someone being shot and killed in Philadelphia and wonder who they were, what impact their death left on those who loved them. But he’d rarely find an answer.
That bothered the 72-year-old constitutional lawyer. It bothers me, too, but in a city with upward of 293 homicides so far this year and ever-shrinking numbers of journalists to bear witness, it feels like there’s barely enough time to gather the details about one victim before there’s a slew of others.
But what to do, right? Isn’t that where we often seem to land with realities we may not like, but that we grow accustomed to? I’ve generously called it the Philly Shrug.
Not satisfied to just shrug off his discomfort, Lyman decided to start and fund the Philadelphia Obituary Project, a website that honor victims with stories about their lives, not their deaths.
In the process, Lyman and his team hopes “to show the public that we are losing members of our community, that these are not just statistics but real people with lives worth marking.”
In short, to give them the last word.
Where Khalil ‘Lil’ Shoatz’ death was marked in 2016 under a headline that read “Three killed in Philly overnight, adding to violent weekend,” the Obituary Project describes him as a man who “paid registration fees so kids could play football.”
Where James Walke III’s death wasn’t covered much past “Man shot to death in Germantown,” the Obituary Project lets readers know that he was “known for his pancakes — and a heart ‘big as the moon.’”
That “Man Dead After Being Shot 6 times in Olney,” was Benjamin Drains, 23, who “carried water around for thirsty homeless.”
The stories are collected by an editor, Albert Stumm, who, full disclosure, used to work with me at the Philadelphia Daily News and two reporters, Jennifer Lawson and Taylor Farnsworth. They can be reached at email@example.com if you want to share a story about a homicide victim.
It was slow-going at first, Stumm conceded; people weren’t sure what to make of their cold calls when they were just starting last year.
Families were fearful and suspicious until they heard the team’s mission — unapologetically broader views of someone’s life than the circumstances of their deaths.
“It is deliberately positive,” Stumm said. “There’s a lot of victim blaming that goes on. That’s not our intention.”
When Trina Singleton’s 24-year-old son was killed in 2016, he was one of several people shot to death that day, including a cousin of rapper Meek Mill; much of the news coverage led with a picture of the rapper instead of the dead men.
She wrote an obituary for her son, but later remembers wishing she had included other details missing from the headlines of the day:
Participating in the project gave her and her family an opportunity to do that, and in turn, heal a little.
“Whenever someone gets murdered, there is already the negative stereotypes that this person must have done something to deserve this, that they’re just one more body,” Singleton said. “This helps us show everyone that there was so much more to his story, that this was a human being that touched lives and meant something to people.
“I think that side of the story should be told as well.”