Last Thursday, before a wake that drew hundreds, before a funeral crowd spilled into the street, before a family grieved a beloved father, brother and son, begging questions about why a promising 26-year-old man's life was suddenly stopped by a police bullet, Randy Blackwell embalmed his friend Derek Walker.
Like Blackwell, Derek worked at Hanes Funeral Home in East Durham, where he transported bodies, handled clerical work and brought life into a space containing death.
It was a part-time job, but Derek was on a fast track to take over the business. "Mr. Mortician," they called him. "Ooooh, Mr. Mortician, he's fine," the girls would say. He liked dressing in snazzy suits and bow ties—fresh, said the guys. Sometimes he'd don his cowboy hat, snapping photos with his 5-year-old son, whom he adored.
Blackwell, 55, works at several funeral homes, and has been embalming Durhamites for two decades. He met Derek in 2005, when Derek was a teenage funeral aide. Blackwell was in his Roxboro home last Tuesday when he heard about a man standing in the middle of CCB Plaza in downtown Durham, waving a gun and ranting. He turned on the television. There was Derek. But it wasn't Derek, he thought.
It was a refrain repeated countless times over the next week: "That's not Derek," they said. "That just isn't Derek."
Derek graduated from Hillside in 2005, where he doubled as an ROTC drill instructor. More recently he had moved into a new home, outfitting his son's bedroom with racecar tracks and a drum set. For several years he had been involved in a custody dispute, which had escalated. Last Tuesday, he posted suicidal messages on Facebook. Then, instead of showing up at the funeral home, he grabbed a gun he reportedly accessed through his part-time security job and drove to CCB Plaza.
By 4:20 p.m., he was standing next to the bronze bull statue, talking to himself and crying. Police rushed to the scene. Crisis negotiators began talking to him. Other officers took aim.
About an hour later, Derek pointed the gun at his head. Then he pointed at an officer. Then he was shot dead.
The body came to Hanes Funeral Home two days later. Blackwell helped roll it into the embalming room, where Derek had a reputation as a jokester. "Mr. Blackwell, why you do white folks better than you do black folks?" he would playfully inquire, darting around the funeral home teasing people or messing with the hairstyles of the ladies returning from the salons. "You goin' into business with me?" he once chirped to a girl who drove a car resembling a hearse. Derek put the fun in funeral.
Blackwell unzipped the bag, called a "disaster pouch," revealing the body. The bullet made a pea-sized hole in the right chest before exploding inside. Because of the autopsy, his brain and organs had been removed. That's not Derek, thought Blackwell.
Inside the embalmment room, several people typically mill about during a job. But last Thursday, Blackwell made a gentle statement to his colleagues. "When I go back there, nobody else is going back with me." He had a mission: to bring Derek back. His family needed that.
Blackwell has a reputation as a professional. He doesn't let sentiment impede his job. Everybody loves Derek, he thought to himself. I can't have anyone else's emotions stirring up my own memories of the kid.
"He's vulnerable," Blackwell said. "I wanted us to be alone out of respect."
Blackwell had mentored Derek. Only once did Derek come to him with a deeper problem. Behind the charismatic smile that drove women crazy, Blackwell said, "I think he had things going on."
After Derek's body was placed on the table, Blackwell closed and locked the door. He normally says a small prayer before embalming a body, but on this day, he made a special appeal: "I ask you, God, to guide my hands. To be with me here in this room today."
Sometimes Blackwell listens to gospel or jazz when he works. But now, the room was silent.
For the next two hours, Blackwell worked. Because of the autopsy, he had to administer the embalming fluid to several arteries rather than just one, while plugging various leaks. He started by injecting the carotids in the neck. Then the subclavians near the chest. Finally, the iliacs near the pelvis. He took care not to inject so strongly to inflate the skin. He treated the inside of the body with embalming gel to preserve the muscles, then applied a hardening compound to solidify it. He filled the body with newspaper and replaced the sternum and cranium. Then he stitched him up.
Suddenly, it was Derek again.
Some people will blame certain things for Derek's death. But most people this week preferred to celebrate his life. For a few days, the news narrative shifted from the phenomenon of "suicide by cop" to the testament of having hundreds of people attend your funeral, with so many folks standing on the pews the fire marshal was drawn in. The wake was scheduled to end at 6 p.m. Instead it lasted till 11.
There's a saying in the funeral business, "You care for the living by taking care of the dead." Derek seemed exceptionally able to comfort people at their darkest hours.
On Monday afternoon, across the street from Fisher Memorial United Holy Church in Hayti, where the hearse Derek once drove was parked, Randy Blackwell stood in front of another funeral home where he often works. He had tried to enter the church but was told it was too crowded.
"That's OK," he said under the sunshine. "I already got my time with him."