There aren’t many people who can keep a cool head as they prepare for 10,000 visitors. Bernard Slaughter Sr. did it twice. He was the mortician trusted to prepare Sam Cooke’s body for viewing after the legendary Chicago soul singer was fatally shot.
And Mr. Slaughter’s funeral home handled the arrangements for Ben Wilson, the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country before he was gunned down on a city street in 1984. An estimated 10,000 people showed up to bid farewell to Wilson, a 6-foot-7 phenom from Simeon Career Academy who has since become a near-mythical symbol of unrealized potential and shattered dreams.
Mr. Slaughter, a native of the Mississippi delta town of Belzoni, died Oct. 31 at Rush University Medical Center at 87. The Chicago area has long been a center for training funeral directors, thanks to Mr. Slaughter’s alma mater, Wor- sham College of Mortuary Science. The integrated 102-year-old school drew promising African-American students from all over the country.
“He was very skilled and trusted,” Leak said, so much so that A.R. Leak as- signed him to do the mortuary make-up for movie star-handsome Sam Cooke, one of the biggest pop-soul stars in the country when he was shot in 1964 by a Los Angeles motel clerk.
At that time, Cooke’s fame was on a near-vertical trajectory. His voice, smooth as silk and just as strong, influences singers to this day. It sent hits tearing up the charts, including “You Send Me” “Another Saturday Night,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Only Sixteen,” “Wonderful World,” “Cupid” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Cooke, who grew up on the South Side, was a member of the first group of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
After his death, “It was Mr. Slaughter who personally took care of the make- up,” Spencer Leak said. Cooke’s service “was the largest funeral that our home serviced,” he said. “We had a line of people in December. People were lined for blocks and the temperature was 8 above [zero] just coming to view him.”
In 1972, Mr. Slaughter started his own mortuary, Slaughter & Son, which to- day is at 2024 E. 75th St. The services for Ben Wilson were the biggest Mr. Slaughter ever arranged through his own funeral home, said Rory Momon, of Wallace-Broadview Funeral Home, who is a governor of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, a largely African-American professional group based in Georgia.
When Mr. Slaughter was training in the mortuary industry, African-American funeral homes often chauffeured black dignitaries that white livery companies refused to service. “VIPs who were black, coming to Chicago, they had to seek the services of a funeral director to get limousine services, because they were not able to get limousine service downtown,” Leak added. “We chauffeured Dr. [Martin Luther] King when he was in Chicago.”
Mr. Slaughter had a fine baritone voice and enjoyed singing gospel, Leak said. “He never met a stranger, but he was a successful businessman,” said Stephanie Kann, program director for Worsham College of Mortuary Science. “He was an icon in funeral service. Very much a gentleman. . . .very respectful.”