I went to the funeral for Robert Sandifer, but not to pay my last respects. Instead, I shot a roll and a half of film.

The 11-year-old was thought to have shot a pistol into a crowd of kids, killing a 14-year-old. But he himself became a national symbol three days later when he turned up dead, killed by two gunshots to the back of the head.

His face remained intact. The casket was open for the visitation.

Photographers and TV crews swarmed around the coffin, on display at the Youth Center Church of God in Christ. Like vultures, we swooped in for scraps of emotions–from his wailing grandmother Janie Fields, women in black wiping away tears, kids staring quietly. Each moving moment was picked clean, then we pulled back and waited for the next shot.

Robert Sandifer, dressed in a tan suit, was photographed more dead than alive. The only picture his family had of him was a police mug shot. Gatling’s funeral home used it on the cover of the obituary program.

The family had no more control over Robert’s funeral than they did over his life. They let us hover over the body, and filed by to have their pictures taken with him. An editor wondered later if they might not have realized they had a right to tell us to stop. Or maybe they wanted their 15 minutes too.

In the back of the church stood a representative from the Nation of Islam. “Look at all those cameras down there,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many journalists in one place. Why do you only come out when something bad happens? Why don’t you guys ever document us in a positive light, like getting diplomas?”

Minutes later I bumped into a guy making a delivery to the Kentucky Fried Chicken next door. He had stopped into the church to see what was going on because the white limousines were blocking his way. He sneered at me and said, “Why are you glorifying that kid? He’s nothing but a two-bit punk. If you guys cover this, it’ll continue. Pretty soon it’s going to be a seven-year-old in the coffin.”

Another photographer was watching the action from the second pew. Funerals of young black kids had become one of his beats. Surely there must be a better picture than the crying-faces-over-the-coffin shot, we mused. That’s the challenge. To catch the unexpected. As we spoke we watched the ebb and flow of mourners and press around the casket. It’s a competitive thing, the photographer said, the pack mentality. You don’t want to get caught without the shot.

Sandifer’s grandmother had offered the photographers several opportunities to snap her crying over the body and collapsing into a set of waiting arms behind her. A few minutes later she’d return to her seat in the front, where she mingled with family and friends. Suddenly there was a lull in the activity around the coffin and she approached it again. I turned to the photographer and said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but that’s a great shot. I’m sorry.” He nodded in amused agreement.

It seemed as though she was performing for me, stroking and kissing her grandson’s forehead. I popped off ten frames then backed away. Outside, I told a writer about the grandmother. “That’s probably the second time she ever kissed him,” he said cynically.

A handful of photographers stood on the sidewalk at the entrance to the church. One said with disdain that he’d been speaking to another inside: “When I asked him where do we draw the line, he said, ‘There is no line.'”

In front of the KFC a TV cameraman set his camera down on the sidewalk and said to a policeman, “I feel outraged that I’m here. People are in there covering the funeral and granny is falling all over the floor. Fuck them. Nobody is dealing with the fact that there is a problem here. This kid was arrested several times. He was a bad little motherfucker. We are just covering the event. Did you see those still photographers at the head of the casket? Did you take a picture of them climbing over the top of the coffin?” he said to me. “I thought, did you have no dignity, any respect for the institution of mourning?”

Editors must have liked the coffin shots, because they were used in Time, on all the local television news programs, on the CBS Evening News, and on the front pages of the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the New York Times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.