Saturday, August 25, 2007

Resourcefulness trumps poverty when it comes to paying for funerals

from The Merced Sun Star


Stacy Winzer collapsed onto the first pew at a Merced funeral chapel. Her maternal moans bounced off the cold wooden casket of her youngest child, shot to death two weeks ago.

Duane Caradine lay inside, his trademark baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, as friends and family touched his stoic face -- once so quick to smile -- one last time.

Just a week before, the 18-year-old Valley Community School student died in a barrage of bullets outside a Denver Avenue apartment.

This memorial and funeral, where mourners dressed in baggy blue jeans, three-piece suits and dozens of styles in between, cost $7,500 -- a staggering bill for a housemom who lives off disability because of her severe asthma.

Most of the bill will be covered through a state victim's program, though the family still had to find enough money to make up the rest and buy a headstone.

Caradine, who toiled part-time in landscaping, is the latest Merced resident to be buried with the help of a car wash, which raised about $400 Saturday. For the last couple decades, when violence and poverty collide, families wash cars, put collection jars in stores and throw barbecues to scrape together enough money to bury their children.

Such public homemade fundraisers -- linked to one of society's most private of rituals -- shine a stark light on the community's rampant poverty as well as on its willingness to unite. "It's sad, but also resourceful," said Robin DeLugan, a UC Merced cultural anthropology professor who first witnessed funeral fundraisers when she moved here from the Bay Area. "It's that combination of poverty in the area that has people finding innovative ways to address fundamental needs."

Poverty is defined when a family of four earns less than $20,444 a year. More than 20 percent of Merced's families live below the poverty line -- twice the national average, according to U.S. Census data. Though 30 million Americans live in poverty, it's often easier to ignore the underclass than to label it a problem in dire need of attention. As the presidential race gains steam, the Democratic Party's hopefuls have begun to spotlight the nation's poor.

In many instances, a burial service costs more than a third of the poverty cutoff line, and many funeral homes offer payment plans to help ease the hit, said Mark Anderson, director at Stratford-Evans Merced Funeral Chapel. "When you look at these young families, they weren't supposed to mortgage their home to take care of their 3-year-old," Anderson said.

Caradine, a teenager who penned rap songs in his spare time, was shot to death at 3:09 a.m. on Aug. 12 at an apartment complex in the Loughborough area. Police said his murder is not gang-related, yet they're having a hard time getting witnesses in the Loughborough neighborhood to come forward.

Still reeling from the sudden loss, Caradine's friends and family spent last Saturday washing a steady stream of cars that pulled into a G Street and Alexander Avenue parking lot. Some residents gave $1, others donated $20 and one person put a $100 bill in the collection jar, said DeAndre Scandrick, Caradine's 25-year-old cousin.

He knew the funeral would be more than the teenager's mother could afford by herself and wanted to chip in, but he couldn't afford to give much. His wife suggested they organize a car wash and barbecue -- what her church did when she was a kid to raise money. "As a family we have to bind together," Scandrick said. "I'm sure they'd do the same for me."

Caradine wasn't the first victim to buried through the help of the public's pocket change. He won't be the last.

Councilman Jim Sanders said he first remembers seeing a car wash for someone killed in a gang shooting in the early 1990s. The need to raise money for a funeral points to the need for better jobs, while also showing residents' willingness to help. "The community does rally to support those who are less fortunate in the right circumstance," he said. "There's just a day-to-day living that a lot of people eke out."

Caradine's memorial, where friends stood in the hallway as relatives clapped to gospel songs about God guiding families through grief, will likely be covered by the state's victim's assistance program. It allows the family to be reimbursed for up to $7,500 of the bill to bury a victim of violent crime, and it pays out about $10 million each year.

Winzer, 41, said the program makes the logistics of burying her son easier, but that the family would have found a way otherwise. "We would have got it done," she sniffled.

Councilman Carl Pollard said the funeral fundraisers indicate the city's rampant problem with gangs and senseless murders.

Just as residents bond through the tragedy, they should look for a way to rid Merced of a culture that disregards human life with the pull of a trigger. "How do we have the community help people get out of the muck?" he wondered.

Until and unless there's an answer, the collision between the poor and the dead will mean more clean cars in Merced. For Duane Caradine, that was a high price to pay.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209-385-2453 or

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