South Seattle funeral director mourns tragic toll of gun violence

SEATTLE -- Roger Leger is tired of burying dead kids.

The longtime funeral director at Columbia Funeral Home in Rainier Valley has seen first-hand the devastating impact of gun violence in South Seattle.

“To be honest with you, I got in this business years ago to try to do my best to help families, and it’s really, really hard for me to take care of the younger ones that this is happening to,” he said.

Leger, who has worked at the funeral home for 28 years, said he struggles to put out of his mind the images of young men whose bodies are riddled with bullets.

“It’s really hard to see that, because they’ve got a whole life to live,” he said. “And to see that being taken from them so soon is, it’s just really hard. I mean I go home at night and I sit there and stare up at the trees and think about what has happened during the day on that service, or for the viewing. Thinking about all those young kids coming in to see their friend in here in a casket.”

This year has been marked by a dramatic increase in gunfire that is nearing epidemic levels, much of it in the south end of the city.

As of Sept. 1, 2015, Seattle police report there have been 275 shots fired citywide – a 35% increase over the same period in 2014.

Eighteen people have been murdered in the city this year, with 11 deaths resulting from gunfire, according to police.

Over the summer, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole attributed the spike, in part, to an ongoing feud between gang members in the East African refugee community.

In late August, the department unveiled a comprehensive strategy to curb gun violence through strengthened partnerships with neighboring law enforcement agencies and increased community outreach.

“In a lot of these incidents, yesterday's victim is tomorrow's shooter or vice versa,” Chief O’Toole said. “There are a very small number of people causing a large number of incidents here.”

In Rainer Valley, Columbia Funeral Home has helped make burial arrangements for several of the recent victims of gun violence, including a 23-year-old man who was killed in what police believe was a gang-related shooting.

“And now the family’s got to go out there and visit their loves one at a cemetery, rather than have them at home. That’s really hard. I think about things like that a lot,” Leger said.

“All the shootings that have been happening, I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know,” Leger said, struggling to find the right words. “I just wish things were different. I wish I could do something, or someone could do something, that would change things.”

Leger said the hardest part of his job is dealing with the families of those who’ve been killed. He’s watched unimaginable grief wash over the faces of parents who have to pick out a coffin for their dead child from a room full of samples.

“That’s the hardest thing to do,” he said. “As soon as we open the door to come in, we hear a sigh from them.”