Growing up, there were three people in the community Ronald Jones says people respected: the preacher, the barkeeper and the undertaker.
After spending nearly every day in church as a child, Jones decided being a preacher wasn’t an option. Then there was the barkeeper, but Jones says he was turned off by the taste of rotgut whiskey.
So, the next best thing was the undertaker. Jones liked the outside appearance of the glitz and glamour that they had: from the fancy clothes to the big Packard car to the diamond horseshoe stick pin.
By his appearance, it’s clear the 71-year-old took some mental notes, including the diamond pins and the nice car. But his attention to detail also shows in his work. The Ronald L. Jones Funeral Chapels in the O’Fallon Park neighborhood of St. Louis is the place you take your loved one if they need to be put back together again. Jones is a restorative artist by trade, and it’s gunshot victims he said he deals with all too often.
He’s tasked with reconstructing the human skull and face to make someone who has died look like themselves again. Just sewing up gunshot wounds to the face has taken countless hours to do.
“People don't realize what destruction one bullet can do,” Jones said. “You may see one little-bitty hole, but not realizing that the whole skull is shattered, and you have to sit there like a jigsaw puzzle and put it back together."
Jones is not numb to any of it. On several occasions he’s cried late at night during embalming sessions, especially when he sees the faces of young people whose lives were cut too short.
“I would rather bury old folks than young people, period,” Jones said. “People don't understand that's not what I'm in the business for. Because when someone has lived their life [into their] 70s, 80s, 90s, you know I feel that they have reached that pinnacle for themselves. But somebody anywhere from 14-23 haven't even had a chance to even experience life for real.”
Many times Jones said he’s recognized people that he’s cared about come across his table. Nearly seven years ago, he lost someone that he had mentored for years. To this day, Jones still refers to her as one of his “kids.” She was shot 11 times. The bullet wounds left her face mutilated and her skull shattered. When he saw her, Jones didn’t even recognize her.
It took him a few days just to sew up all of the entrance and exit wounds to her face, and he had to use 254 pieces of wire to reconstruct her skull. But as he got closer to making her whole again, things started to become a lot clearer.
“When I pulled the face over the skull, I almost fell out on the floor, because I'm recognizing somebody that I know and was dear to me,” Jones said. “So I was mandated to really do my best to bring her back so her baby and aunt who raised her could bring some closure.”
Jones is well acquainted with the loss gun violence brings, not just because of his business. In 1969, his older brother James was murdered just after returning from the Vietnam War. Jones said a group of people his brother knew robbed and shot him six times outside of their mother’s house in St. Louis.
Jones said it was a "bitter pill to swallow" that left him angry and frustrated.
"I felt like the law was not doing what it should have been doing or what have you," Jones said, "and the wheels of justice was turning very slow. And the thing about it was that no one come forward."
But between the carnage and loss, the one thing that bothers him the most is seeing kids wander into his casket display room as their family members are making arrangements, only to see them point and say, “This is the casket that I want.”
“It really sends a chill through me, because the fact that it's telling me that they feel that this is the only thing they have to look forward to, is a casket and a grave,” Jones said. “And I try to tell them, you're worth more than that.”
That’s why, behind the scenes, he’s been on a mission to save lives. Most of the young people in the community refer to him as “Pops.” He said it makes him feel old when they say it, but because he has their respect, he’s able to talk with them.
“You have to reach them on an individual basis,” Jones said. “And you know I tell people that dealing with one child at a time is like carrying a bucket of sand. Sooner or later you got a beach. You'll see some results.”
Jones lives and works within the community that he serves. Often, he said, society is quick to write off teens and young adults when they’ve made a mistake. But he doesn’t. Instead, he gives them love, compassion and guidance. He said because many of them have come from broken homes, he’s sometimes had to take on a parental role. He’s bought them school clothes, food and even bikes so they don’t have to go without.
Just by sitting with them and making them stop and think about their actions and the potential consequences that follow, Jones said, he knows he’s saved many of their lives.
“It could be your life,” Jones said. “Is it worth gambling like that? And the thing about it is sometimes when you intervene and make them stop and think, because like I tell them, it takes a half a pound of pressure to pull a trigger for a lifetime of regret.”
Jones makes regular trips to parks, car washes and surrounding neighborhoods to mentor anybody and everybody who is willing to listen. Through the years, he’s managed to recruit others to help him. Wiley Sanders has known Jones for more than 20 years and helps him mentor young people. He said, he’s noticed a difference.
"You got a bunch of young fellas that he done talked to now that I know personally, that I done talked to as well, that started going to school,” Sanders said. “They wasn't even going to school. They just started going back to school to get their education. Some of them don't hang out in the neighborhood. They go up to the YMCA and Herbert Hoover now. That's a good thing."
But when just talking it out isn’t enough, in the past, Jones has used a “scared straight” approach with what he calls "last-chance schools" to show them the grim reality of what’s ahead.
"They would bring a busload of kids to the funeral home,” Jones said. “We got the parents' permission to show them the devastation of what a bullet does to a human body, about an autopsy."
He said it was important for them to see the “raw reality,” because most times they don’t have to see the devastation that they’ve caused.
It’s something he knows all too well. He said even when the so-called tough guys try to challenge him, he doesn’t back down. He doesn’t care if they refer to him as “old and crazy” because of it. All that matters to him is that there is no more violence.
Because even though Jones is in the funeral business, his mission is the living. He’s seen many of the young people he’s mentored through the years go on to have families and successful careers, and he wants the same for the latest generation of youth.
One day, Jones said, he hopes the only reason young people come through his funeral home is to ask their “Pops” for advice.
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