There is a casket sitting on a street in North Philly.
No, I’m not making this up. It’s an actual coffin.
At first, when I saw a photo of it on Reddit.com, I thought a resident had placed it there to reserve a parking spot. But after I drove to 16th Street near Lehigh Avenue on Monday to check it out, I discovered that the casket had been put there for a reason that will make more sense in a minute.
After I parked my car, I looked around and saw some boys goofing around outside a bodega on a trash-strewn street. They were behaving like it was perfectly normal to have a casket sitting there. I called out to a passerby, “Hey, whose casket is that?”
He pointed to another man heading our way. His name is Eric “DJ Pak Man” Battice, manager of the Express Urself Urban Crisis Response Center across from the coffin on 16th Street. He told me the casket was for crime prevention efforts and had been there for four years. Four years! How does a coffin occupy a space on a public roadway, in all kinds of weather, for four years?
“We’re just trying to make sure that nobody ends up right here,” Battice said. “That’s our main goal. That’s our main focus.”
He lifted the lid for me to see inside. No dead body. Just dirty blankets and a soiled towel.
It’s on wheels, which allows anti-violence activists from Express Urself to move it to various neighborhoods to try to scare youngsters into understanding the finality of death. A few days later, I reached out to Terry Starks, the founder of the center.
“Do you have a hearse to transport it?” I asked.
“No, we push it,” replied Starks, formerly with Philadelphia CeaseFire. “There’s nothing more real than a casket coming down the street.”
The Philadelphia Streets Department confirmed that the coffin has been a part of the neighborhood for years. It’s something of a landmark. Parents take their kids to see it. It’s the site of prayer vigils. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas posted a photo of it on his Instagram account on Feb. 22.
Last year, Quadir Qualls of Nicetown announced that he would spend 40 days lying in it in memory of his brother, who had been murdered more than a decade before. Starks said Qualls probably stayed in it for about five days before abandoning the effort. I give him props because I wouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes. Back then, Qualls told 6ABC that his goal was “just to let [youth] know that before they make that decision to kill somebody, that they should think about the importance of living.”
The coffin is the third one Starks has owned. He said the first was donated back in 2014 by Janet Powell-Daily, the former funeral director of Powell Mortuary Services, who last year was sentenced to three months in prison followed by 20 months of house arrest after neighbors discovered three rotting corpses in her garage.
That first casket mysteriously disappeared shortly after it arrived. Another funeral home later donated a wooden one, which Starks exchanged for a metal silver coffin. After it rusted, Starks got neighborhood kids to paint the top a shiny gold and the bottom black.
It’s weather beaten from sitting out in the elements. The signs that had served as backdrops and read “ALL LIVES MATTER” and “I WANT TO LIVE” have since blown down. Refuse has collected underneath the coffin.
After the weather warms up, Starks plans to once again wheel the coffin around to various neighborhoods. As he pointed out, “Sometimes you have to reach people at a level that they understand.”
And there’s nothing not to understand about a casket.