Lafayette Gatling Sr. knew he wanted to be a funeral home director when he was just 5-years-old.
Born in Seaboard, North Carolina, Mr. Gatling lost his mother when she was 21. While healing from his grief, he realized he one day wanted to help others heal from theirs. So Mr. Gatling began practicing.
One day at his grandparents’ farm, Mr. Gatling held a funeral for a chicken that had died. He opened a can, put some cotton inside and fashioned a small pillow for the bird. Then, he laid the chicken inside the makeshift casket. But he wasn’t done — he was determined to bring “visitors.” So he sprinkled corn on the ground around the casket to bring the other chicks to pay their respects.
Mr. Gatling would take that personal training with him as he grew up to eventually open his own funeral home in Chicago, where he moved in the early 1960s.
“He thought that he would try to figure out some way that he could help heal that wound and hurt that he went through,” said Marguerite Gatling, Mr. Gatling’s wife.
Mr. Gatling died at Rush Hospital on Tuesday at age 81. He had been in declining health.
In Chicago, Mr. Gatling became one of the city’s most well-known funeral home directors.
Mr. Gatling opened his first funeral home, Gatling’s Chapel, 10133 S. Halsted St., in 1986. In 2007, he opened one in South Holland, 1200 E. 162nd St.
Sheila Sterling remembers the first time she met Mr. Gatling. When Mr. Gatling opened his first facility, she was a junior in high school, working at Dean’s Printers on Halsted Street. Mr. Gatling walked in one day, looking for someone to partner with to print obituaries.
“Even though he was the CEO, the founder, the owner, that was just a title that he had,” said Sterling, now the dean at Corliss High School. “He was hands-on. Sometimes he would actually sit in on some of the services to make sure that everything was going right.”
Marguerite Gatling added that he was especially compassionate for those who didn’t have the means to cover funeral costs.
“Nobody was ever turned away,” she said. “He would always say, ‘If we can help you, that’s what we’re here to do.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
But Mr. Gatling would go on to impact the funeral home business across the country, becoming one of the first to hold drive-thru viewings.
He had a background in construction, Marguerite Gatling said, and felt if other builders ever need to attend a visitation right after work one day, they may not have the appropriate attire.
“He said, ‘Well, maybe we can do something that they can drive by and see it through a TV monitor,’” said Marguerite Gatling. “He found a way to do it, and it worked. Not only did it help in that respect, but there were handicapped people that would drive and they wouldn’t have to park so far and walk to the facility. It’s much more convenient and accommodating.”
She said her husband was “a man with a vision and he worked until he saw that vision.”
But Mr. Gatling also loved putting on a show. On Sundays, he would have his children join him at church as his backup singers. He was also part of a quartet.
“He was a proud member of the Christland Singers for over 50 years,” said his daughter, Marquita Gatling. “He was the last living member. He was a songwriter as well. He had some pretty popular tunes among the quartet community.”
In addition to his wife and three children — Lafayette Gatling Jr., Shirl Gatling and Marquita Gatling — Mr. Gatling is survived by six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Visitation for Mr. Gatling will be held on Jan. 9 at the Gatling’s Chapel on Halsted with hours to be announced.