Rodney Cozart knows that at 27 he’s a little young to appreciate his own mortality. Yet he’s lived on the west side most of his life and has seen it become a place where young people have to face death every day. “I recollect that when I was coming up, if a kid died, they were either sick or got hit by a car. But now a kid will come home and say, ‘Oh yeah, mama, we stepped over a body coming across the parking lot.’ It’s so common now. If a kid died, we used to not be able to get any sleep. Now it’s so common, it’s nothing to see a hearse going this way and that down the street.”
Cozart owns a funeral home on West Chicago Avenue. Two years ago he decided he was doing too many funerals for young people and started staging mock funerals at local high schools, giving students a chance to see the results of violence: an open casket and grieving mourners. “I started doing my funerals because I thought kids didn’t know how to appreciate, respect, or value life. A lot of young people don’t believe that they’re going to die. They think death is for old people and people who are sick. I wanted to tell them what it was like to have a mother sit across my desk from me–and then walk her across the showroom floor and ask her which one her son is going to look best in. Those are hard questions. Can you imagine someone telling you to go and pick out the coffin that you will like best? I don’t care how attractive or expensive the coffin is, he’s not going to look good in any of them.”
Cozart is the oldest of four children. His mother was 16 when he was born, and he didn’t meet his father until he was a teenager. He had what he calls a “terrible” childhood, largely because he and his two stepfathers didn’t get along. “I was not athletic. I never played basketball or baseball or anything. While other kids were thinking about what girl they were going to go with and coming up with money to go on this trip, I was thinking of ways to retire early. I was referred to as the black Alex Keaton. I was just thinking of ways that my mother wouldn’t have to work so hard, ways that we could live much better.”
He was playing outside one day when a funeral procession came down the street. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “I wasn’t at the point where I thought, ‘Death is behind this, and somebody had to lose a loved one.’ I saw a flower car first, and then a hearse. And all the little lights were on, and the flags–and it was just attractive to see all the people dressed up. Again, I didn’t know what was behind things. I mean, I was young!”
Yet Cozart knew that his destiny was to own a funeral home. “Black people, they’re supposed to be spiritual people, supposed to have God call you to do a lot of different things. Some people are just called younger than others. I don’t even know why. Nobody in the family was in the funeral business. No one had ever even worked in a funeral home or was ever affiliated with one in any kind of way. It was just something that I knew I wanted to do.”
At 13 he started working for free at a local funeral home, sweeping leaves out of the backs of hearses and performing other menial tasks. Eventually he got to help dress bodies to prepare them for funerals. He watched the funeral-home director discuss financial arrangements with families. “I started asking him how much funerals were. He told me they can range anywhere from $1,200 to $8,000. And I thought, ‘Whoa!'”
When he was 16 his mother moved him, his sister, and two brothers to Saint Anne, a town in rural Kankakee County. He finished high school there, and attended Kankakee Community College, where he “didn’t study much of anything.” But he did become chairman of the volunteer fire department and served on the school council. And he gave motivational speeches at local schools and published a series of inspirational stories about his early childhood. He did so much the town named a street after him. “It’s not honorary. It’s a real street–Cozart Street.”
At 19 he moved back to Chicago to work at Hektoen, a nonprofit medical research institute on the west side. He spent two years in its morgue as an assistant pathologist. “I loved it. I felt just like a little doctor. I had a little white jacket and my own little office. The learning process was so great, because you got to find out how long a body’s been dead. You find a body that’s been dead a month and you can almost pinpoint what day he died, what he ate, what was the last time he engaged in sex.”
Soon Cozart was examining bodies himself and began to see death in different ways, even with humor. “One of the weirdest things I’ve ever done–I was working on this one particular case, and I was handling the liver. Now, liver is my favorite food–I could eat liver seven days a week. And after I was done I ran to the phone and took off my gloves. I had this taste for liver so bad that I told my mother, you’ve gotta have liver, onions, bell-pepper gravy, and mashed potatoes on the table when I get home. She thought I was crazy and hung up on me, but I was serious as a heart attack.”
Cozart says he was “different” as a kid, and that included developing a store of imaginary characters he would trot out for his mother’s friends. “It got to the point where my mom said, ‘You should do something with that, because it’s good.’ The older I got, the better I got with it.” His first character was an old woman named Miss Lizzie. Then he cooked up an old man, a bum, a little boy named Claude, a white used-car salesman named Bob, and a bushel of others. “I can do my characters spontaneously. I’ve actually done cassette tapes where it sounds like there are three or four people sitting around talking. And I don’t have to stop and think about what this one would say or that one. While I’m being old lady, it’s like my mind is already focusing on what the old man is going to say. And if I’m old man, my mind is focusing on what little boy is going to say.”
After moving back to Chicago Cozart took some of these characters to open-mike nights at south- and west-side clubs and worked them into a comedy routine. Eventually he became a headliner at several clubs.
Then in late March 1990 Cozart had to deal with death in the most direct way possible. His mother was killed in an automobile accident in Saint Anne. He’d received a large fee to do a show at the Roberts Motel on the south side the same day he had to bury her. His mother had never seen him perform, and the gig was to have been her first time. “It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. I found it hard to be funny about anything. I prayed real hard that night. She said, ‘The only thing that is going to stop me from being at this show is death. Otherwise,’ she said, ‘I will be there. Nothing but death is going to stop me.’ Well, it happened. The people from the Roberts Motel came to the funeral and set up floral pieces, but it was still like, ‘We’ll see you tonight.’ So I had to go. And I went, and I got a standing ovation. I went backstage and I cried, because the only way I was able to do the show was I pictured her in the front row laughing. I told them to reserve the front-row center seat. ‘Don’t let anybody sit there. That’s for my mother, right there.’ ”
He did only a couple of shows after that, then retired from the circuit and started his own funeral home. “I didn’t want to mix comedy with the funeral business. You just can’t do it. It’s just totally unprofessional. You’re up onstage one night, and you’re cursing everyone in the crowd, and you’re talking about somebody’s big fat mother and how somebody stinks–and then the next day you go to the cemetery and you’re going to ask that everybody please bow their heads in prayer? It’s just totally contradictory. It would be like mixing water and oil. You just can’t.”
Life simply wasn’t funny after his mother died. He would occasionally still do his characters, but only in private for friends and only after intense prodding. He concentrated on building up his business and making a name for himself. The funeral home grew quickly, and he started to be recognized as a west-side community leader for things such as his mock funerals.
A couple of years ago he was placing an ad at the offices of the Windy City Word when a friend who worked there approached him and suggested that he write an advice column for black teenagers. Cozart hadn’t really considered journalism before, but he put a few sample columns together. He figured that helping out teenagers in need was something his mother would have wanted him to do. Soon after the column began running, it was picked up by the Chicago Defender, where it now runs weekly under the title “What’s Up?” Another column, “Ask Rodney,” runs in the bimonthly west-side Austin Voice.
The young people who write Cozart have problems that range from drug and gang pressures to abusive parents. One person wrote to say that his priest was “touching” him inappropriately. Another said he’d “found” $1,400 in a wallet and wanted to know what to do with the money. The problem is usually something Cozart has seen before; having taken care of his sister and two brothers while they were growing up, he’s run into plenty of tough situations. Yet teenagers today, he says, have even greater troubles than he did, and many of them don’t have anyone to talk to. “You never know what kind of problems someone’s carrying around with them. And I think it gets pretty deep when you have to sit down and write somebody who’s in the paper. Everybody can’t afford counseling. Everybody don’t trust their teacher. So I wanted to be that friend that was in the paper that they could write to and look for a real answer.”
Crystal wrote to say that her boyfriend, an up-and-coming musician, was using his fame to attract other women. He’d been doing a lot of drugs and had recently started using abusive language. She didn’t know what to do. “My mother told me he’s going to be somebody and that I should stick with him,” she wrote. “Yes, I love him, but I’m not about to endure physical abuse from him or anyone else.”
Cozart replied, “You sound as though you have gotten caught up with a soon-to-be star who might not even shine. No amount of money nor material gain can compensate for verbal or physical abuse. Many women have taken legal action to assure safety and protection against animals wanting to beat on them, but soon are weak, flattered and sweet-talked right into a black eye, or swollen jaw. Yet, they remain in such relationships and it continues. I don’t care who he is, or what he’s soon to become, or how bright his future looks. I guarantee you if he doesn’t care what comes out of his mouth to you, he definitely doesn’t care what he does to you. The crowds are getting bigger, the lights are getting brighter and Crystal…He’ll just get worse.”
It’s a kind of advice that isn’t found anywhere else, he says. “I’ve read Ann Landers. You see, a young black person couldn’t write to her and get a response like what I would give them. It would be next to impossible. You know, as bad as she’d want to help, she couldn’t. I’m no Ann Landers. I’m no goody-two-shoes. I’m no saint. I’m just going to tell them the way it needs to be, with no big fancy words that they need to look up. I think what makes me successful is that I’m just going to be down-to-earth and just tell them. You just have to be down-to-earth.”
Cozart may be down-to-earth, but that doesn’t mean he lives ascetically. He’d always dreamed about a more luxurious life, with fancy cars and clothes. Money may not be his primary goal in operating the funeral home, but he’s making it and spending it.
When he goes out on the town he rents limousines, and though he now lives in a third-floor apartment next door to where he grew up, he recently bought the building and plans to convert it into a three-story home for himself, complete with a 40-seat private movie theater. “You know, I’ve been told that my house looks like a white person’s house. I don’t even know what a white person’s house looks like. Maybe it was ignorance speaking.”
His taste runs toward French provincial. “A lot of people say it doesn’t look like the typical young black male’s apartment. Well, you know, I slept on the floor for three years. My mother said, ‘Please, Rodney, let me buy you some furniture.’ And I just wouldn’t. I slept on the floor three years. I got a piece at a time. I just didn’t want to be in a hurry to do it.”
Cozart is making his money off death, but he truly believes that death should be a celebration and that it should be made as comfortable and enjoyable for people as possible. “Death is just a part of life,” he says. When it comes time for his own funeral he wants a no-holds-barred three-day celebration that’s open to the public–one day with an open casket at his funeral home, one day in Saint Anne, and one day at a country club where everyone will arrive in limousines and dress in their best clothes. “I am definitely not going to die and be a statistic. I did not come here to live and die and be just another black man gone. I don’t want to live to be old–50, 55, that’s good. I just want to pack as much in as I can.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.