Death is a spontaneous occurrence, and that means the work of helping people cope in the aftermath of losing a loved one is, too.
Sylvester Rutledge, the head pastor at North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church on 32nd Street, is used to working long, odd hours throughout the week. So is his friend, Todd Walker, a funeral assistant. The two met years ago while Walker oversaw a viewing ceremony at Rutledge’s church, and have continued to work together since.
“It’s 24/7,” said Rutledge. The calls for assistance, he added, often come at times when he and Walker would rather be with their own families. “But we’ve been given a responsibility. So we have to come and try and help people get through this.”
Walker, who has been in the business for over 20 years, said this year has been one of the busiest in recent memory. “Busy, busy, busy. Some weeks you might work every day,” Walker said.
Before the pandemic, homicides across California and in the Bay Area were trending down, but that’s changed. The Oakland Police Department reported 120 murders last year, only slightly down from the 123 it reported in 2021. By comparison, in 2019, there were 75.
Although death has become more present in the minds of Oaklanders, those like Rutledge and Walker who work or play a role in the death-care industry contend with it on a daily basis.
Walker began working in the industry while he was coaching youth football in Berkeley, his hometown. An acquaintance at a funeral home asked if he’d like to take on a gig as an assistant. At first, he declined. But six months later, he said yes.
“In between them six months, I was steady going to funerals,” Walker recalled. With so much death occurring around him, he saw the job as an opportunity to spread an anti-violence message to the young people he worked with.
With their parents’ permission, Walker took the youth he coached to the funeral homes where he worked, and walked them through the process. In giving them an up-close view of the painful ripple effect that occurs when someone is killed, Walker hoped “to show the kids what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Listen to the full audio story below to hear more from Walker and Rutledge about what it’s been like to provide death care services during a violent chapter in Oakland’s recent history.
Ricky Rodas is The Oaklandside’s small business reporter. He produced this audio story as part of an ongoing radio fellowship at KALW, where it aired on Crosscurrents.