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Fruitvale funeral home tries to improve neighborhood for the living

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In 2011, Oakland experienced a spike in violent crime after four years of declining crime rates. As of April of this year, crime has risen by 21 percent. In Fruitvale, merchants are struggling to combat the violence that is plaguing the neighborhood. One unlikely business is taking part in that effort. Cooper’s Chapel Funeral Home has been in the neighborhood for almost a century and now, a new manager is set on making the historic mortuary a vital part of the community.

Like other businesses in the area, Cooper’s Chapel Funeral Home keeps a closed-door policy as a safety measure, but manager, Eduardo De Loa is welcoming. It is his job to comfort people during their greatest periods of grief and he wants the place to be warm and welcoming. The chapel is modestly decorated with few fixtures on the otherwise bare walls. It is as inviting as a funeral home can be. It is hard to avoid the macabre at a funeral home, but De Loa tries. "When you deal with death sometimes it burdens you with sadness, fatigue, but I think I see myself as a happy go-lucky funeral director you know?" he asks.

Cooper’s Chapel Funeral Home, he says, is not your average funeral home. Cooper’s used to be a small mom-and-pop business for almost a century. In 2009, the Catholic Church bought the mortuary and brought De Loa in. When he first arrived in the neighborhood two years ago, he noticed that the Fruitvale district was experiencing improvements. "Streets were being repaved, sidewalks were being refurbished… It wasn’t a complete refurbishing but some kind of revitalizing was going on. I went with it. I said, 'if that’s happening, I want to do some sort of revitalizing too'," says De Loa.

It has not been easy. In 2011, the murder rate in Oakland rose 14 percent, after four straight years of decline. De Loa admits that on his very first day on the job, he wasn’t quite prepared to live in Oakland. "I knew it would be a rough reality when I got involved in a hit-and-run. Somebody crashed into me and they just sped off. I said, 'Oh my god, welcome to Oakland.'"

Once he got to Cooper’s, he said he had to adjust to more than just Oakland’s reckless drivers. "Jokingly, my staff welcomed me with tasers and a bulletproof vest." The violence didn’t really phase him. De Loa saw it more as a reason to get involved. "No longer did I have the mentality of 'let people come to us', but I started saying, let’s start going out to the community,” he says.

De Loa wants to do more than comfort the grieving – he wants to intervene before violence happens. He and his staff are set on making Cooper's a pillar in the community. Unlike other funeral homes, they do not turn people away. “The not turning away is related to the fact that other funeral homes, because of liabilities, do not want to service these people,” De Loa explains. “If a gang wants to retaliate what better place to do it then when everybody's gathered at a funeral home or church?"

At Cooper’s, they exercise what De Loa calls “Gang Protocol.” That means they will have undercover cops present during services that might get violent. “So, it's a win-win situation for everybody. They are being provided, they are not turned away, and they are in a safe environment. They know the police are here and kids who are here who are also gang members know that and they feel safe too."

Safety and support are De Loa’s goals of service in a community that struggles with crime on a daily basis. He attends local events like neighborhood cleanups, charity drives and crime prevention meetings. "It’s all part of the ministry of service," he says. De Loa wants to help beyond just burying the dead. He wants Cooper's to be a part of stopping the violence, even as the funeral home is reintroducing itself to the neighborhood, "People don’t know. They still think it’s a beat-up old mortuary, so that’s part of the revitalizing,” he says. De Loa says calls Cooper’s “alive and well.”

He might be the only funeral home director to describe a mortuary that way, but De Loa believes that Cooper’s, along with the help of other religious institutions in the neighborhood, can help bring the community closer together in this time of need and hardship.

This story originally aired on May 30, 2012.