While most people think of funerals as somber, quiet occasions, this can actually depend greatly on the culture, custom, and region. When you think of the average American funeral traditions, you likely think of gathering at a church or funeral home, prayers being read, and the family saying their goodbyes.
For those involved with gang activity, American funerals actually look a lot different. While this subset of culture is less likely to be seen by those outside of the community, there is still a well-known tradition associated with funerals.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1. Police Presence
- 2. Extravagant Processions
- 3. Gang Symbolism
- 4. Prayer
- 5. Pictures
- 6. Outward Mourning
- 7. Revenge Activity
- 8. Honoring of the Dead
While funerals are always about grief and honoring the bereaved family, gang funerals also can be a time for violence and revenge. These occasions earned a reputation as being a place for long-standing rivals to get their revenge, provoke conflict, and even threaten family members.
Though most of us can probably agree that we’d never like to experience a violent, threatening funeral, it’s still important to recognize all different aspects of death and grief. In this guide, we’ll explore the top gang funeral traditions you might be in the United States. From modern-day gangs to the original mobsters of New York and Chicago, there are a lot of similarities between the way these groups honor the dead.
1. Police Presence
Because violence is so common at gang funerals, it is incredibly common to see police present for the entire event. In Los Angeles, the police attend every gang funeral since they can be such a war ground for violence.
For one gang funeral for Cadillac Jim, age 29, police officers lined up in riot gear outside of the funeral service. They also accompanied the processional, keeping an eye for activity from rival gangs. Though this is understandably difficult for the family, it’s a necessity to avoid any unwanted crime or violence.
2. Extravagant Processions
Though there is almost always a police presence, that doesn’t stop these processions from being extravagant. Families and gangs spare no expense when it comes to the funeral service. There is likely to be a high-end, over-the-top hearse and casket, and these are just the name of the game.
The larger and more extravagant the procession, the more status is given to the deceased. Like in other cultures, the funeral procession is a way to show social standing. It’s also a form of respect, drawing people from all over the neighborhood. Even those who didn’t know the deceased personally are likely to attend to show support.
The politics of these gangs within their specific neighborhoods are complex. Choosing not to attend a funeral could have big consequences, so many people attend to avoid any problems.
3. Gang Symbolism
In the past, it was difficult for modern-day gangs to find symbolic flowers, banners, and bandanas in honor of their loved ones. Today, due to the rise in gang activity (and funerals), many industries have sprung up around this regalia.
Believe it or not, there are local florists that specialize in gang-colored arrangements, using both colored flowers and ribbons to show support. There are other merchants that sell custom apparel, banners, and more. These can be customized to say “R.I.P. [Name]” or with other gang-related messages.
Though this might seem unusual or in poor taste to outsiders, it’s considered a form of respect in the gang community. Those offering these services do so as a way to show support, not as a business venture.
There are also religious elements at these funerals. Most gang members in the United States are Christian (though not always), and these funerals are held at churches.
Though many priests, pastors, and religious leaders are against holding funerals for gang members, many do it to help spread the word of God as well as to create a positive space for those involved.
The gang members and funeral guests take prayer and religion very seriously during the funeral service. Some might sing hymns, and it’s common to bring rosary beads for the deceased and their family.
Most of those who die from gang activity are young. Their friends, fellow gang members, are also young, and they express grief in different ways. Taking pictures with the deceased and with other members at the funeral is not seen as disrespectful. Quite the opposite, this is a way to say goodbye.
In some parts of the country, extreme embalming is used to create photo opportunities with the deceased. From propping the deceased on a motorcycle to a throne, this is a way for guests to remember their loved ones as they were in life.
6. Outward Mourning
Though you likely don’t associate gangsters with outward displays of emotion, these are very common at gang funeral services. The family, fellow members, and other guests often cry out in mourning, and crying is not uncommon.
The family is encouraged to grieve freely, and many members feel a great deal of loss. By expressing these feelings at the funeral, they honor their lost friend. This mourning continues through the procession to the graveyard.
7. Revenge Activity
Unfortunately, it would be hard to talk about gang funerals without mentioning violence and revenge. Because funerals are a place where people gather to pay respects, rival gangs know this is an easy target for violence.
It’s not uncommon for rival gangs to use this occasion to enact revenge on each other, whether that means stopping the procession, starting a gunfight at the church, or simply intimidating the bereaved family.
One example of this was recently seen in Chicago in 2020. Donnie Weathersby was killed by a gang-related drive-by shooting in a war between different gang factions.
At his funeral, a car full of rival gang members pulled up alongside the funeral home and shot at funeral goers on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, 15 people were killed during this funeral mass shooting.
Though police were present at the funeral, there was no way to stop the quick, rapid-fire of gang violence. Chicago is home to 117,000 gang members between 55 different gangs, and this means violence is often inevitable even at funeral services.
8. Honoring of the Dead
Within the gang culture, it’s also important to honor the dead. Because respect is at the center of everything they do, the gang continues on with their deceased friends in mind. It’s not uncommon for these gangs to take action for the dead, acting on their behalf, helping their families, and respecting their friend’s memory.
Another way they honor the dead is by visiting the cemetery. There are famously barbecues on the lawn of cemeteries to join the gang together with the dead. Though this might sound morbid if you’re not familiar with the culture, this is a way for gang members to feel closer to those they lost.
Because many gang members die in violence young, their loved ones often feel they’re gone before their time. Taking the time to honor the dead each and every day means they didn’t die in vain.
Live Fast and Die Young: Gang Funerals
Gangs are in no way a new part of society. With street gangs beginning in the United States as early as 1783, this is something that has always been a part of our culture. Not only do these gangs have rules for how to live, but they also have strict rules for how to die.
The funeral wishes of gang members often look different from those not associated with gang activity. While families just want to bury their loved ones, it’s important to pay close attention to the politics, symbolism, and remembrance of these gang funerals.
1. Howell, James C, John P. Moore. “History of Street Gangs in the United States.” National Gang Center Bulletin. May 2010. NationalGangCenter.gov.
2. Main, Frank, Sam Charles. “Gang feud likely cause of mass shooting at South Side funeral home.” Chicago Sun-Times. 22 July 2020. Chicago.SunTimes.com.
3. Wilkinson, Tracy, Stephanie Chavez. “Elaborate Death Rites of Gangs.” Los Angeles Times. 2 March 1992. LaTimes.com.