Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Flashback 1992: Making a Tombstone, Sending Out a Message

Hosea Knox, 1992 (Photo for the Sun-Times by Robert A. Davis; used with permission)
      Sunday's tribute to newspaper photographers got a lot of attention. One of the shooters I mentioned, the great Bob Davis, wrote on Facebook: "Our mutual curiosity in human interest stories brought value to the readers. There are a million stories in the naked city! Just get on the bus and ride!!"
    "Get on the bus..." conjured up a 30-year-old memory. We did just that. Hopped on a CTA bus, randomly, to see where it took us. It took us to Elmo's Tombstones.
     Knox died last year at 82, incidentally. Elmo's Tombstones Service is still in business, run by his daughters.  The column is quite short: it might have been more of an extended caption for Bob's photo. Actually, its brevity is a blessing; I like to think I wouldn't write "the sign boldly announces its presence" in recent years. Though its clunkiness isn't the central flaw: I should have gone back, talked to customers (which, I can tell from the photo captions, Bob indeed did, to continue our theme of photographers as goad and pole star).  

     You can't miss the little building on South State Street. The signs boldly announce its presence, as a monument of sorts, to Chicago's casual familiarity with sudden death, from gang fights, guns, drugs and other causes.
     "Tombstones Made While U Wait," a huge sign declares. "Be 4 You Go Call Elmo."
     Inside, Hosea Knox, who took over the business when founder Elmo Williams retired eight years ago, is buffing the surface of a fresh tombstone for a 17-year-old boy. On one part of the tombstone it says: "Son-Brother" on another, his nickname "Lil Key `G' " and a Star of David.
     "That's a gang symbol," said Knox, pointing out the star, which the family selected from a book of patterns. Knox was uncertain how the teen died. "You really can't tell what happens to them, for sure."
     Knox makes five or six tombstones a day, sometimes while people wait.
     "I usually say, `Get a cup of coffee, or something,' " says Knox.
     While he has no way of knowing how many of his customers are from the fraternity of murder victims—about 700 so far this year—he has his suspicions.
     "What I try to do is, I try not to ask them what happened," he says. "A lot of the time that opens up wounds and they are trying to forget. But I can see the date of death. If they're a teen, unless they were sick, they were killed."
     The shop blares with the noise of the Ingersol-Rand air compressors and it's heavy with the smell of enamel paint. Fresh gravestones wait to be engraved, while others, with the names newly carved, wait for the families to pick them up.
     Knox points out that oftentimes the tragedy of a teen's murder is compounded by the grim practical reality of the cost of burial. Even his budget tombstones cost about $350, plus there is $200 or $300 more to prepare the gravesite for the stone, not to mention all the other costs of burial.
     "A lot of people don't have the funds to do what they had in mind," says Knox.
     Knox said that people spend months paying small sums toward a tombstone. "If I get half, I'll cut (the stone)" he says, although he doesn't let the stones out of the shop until he is paid in full.
     He says he doesn't spend too much time speculating on his position in the tragic chain of violence in the city.
     "It's just a business," he says. He doesn't think that gang members, driving past his business, ever view the stacks of tombstones as a warning sign. They never think the tombstones may be waiting for their names.
     "People don't believe they will get shot," he says. "You show it to them. They see it. But they just don't believe."
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 20, 1992


  1. Kudos to the CTU. Chicago isn’t the only city with this problem. Every school system is facing it but only the CPS is making national news thanks to the teachers who are fighting for sanity.
    It’s about testing and accountability. It seems Los Angeles has the most effective approach. If the mayor is in touch with other mayors, as she says she is, she would do well to learn from others.
    What is troubling is why aren’t Chicagoans hearing from their Director of Public Health? Of course as an appointee of the mayor, she is not going to budge.
    It is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous telling the public that the schools are the safest place for children to be.

    1. Maybe you meant to place this under Wednesday's post?

  2. All right, I'll bite: what's so wrong about writing, "The signs boldly announce its presence"? Having seen one of the signs in the accompanying photo, I would say that you've nailed it in six words. If anything, given the level of business they are experiencing, maybe the signs aren't bold enough.


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