Colorful caskets pay tribute to young lives lost to violence


Calyia Stringer experienced a smile on her encounter the working day she posed for a image with a yellow flower in her hand. The toddler beamed with delight as she confirmed off the bloom before handing it to her godmother, Jatoria Foster.

“She was so delighted,” Foster said. “That was a single of the greatest recollections I have of her.”

No one particular thought the identical picture would stop up on the lid of Calyia’s casket — till the unthinkable happened. The 3-yr-outdated was killed previous September when a stray bullet tore by means of her grandmother’s bed room in East St. Louis, Illinois. For Calyia’s funeral, her relatives wished to remember the happiest times of her daily life, so the funeral house embellished her casket with a few photos of the woman.

The art of wrapping a casket in imagery — very similar to the way organizations wrap logos close to cars, trucks, and buses — is increasing in attractiveness as mourners look for unforgettable ways to rejoice their liked ones’ lives. Across the region, casket wrap organizations develop custom made patterns, typically for grieving mothers and fathers who have lost their small children to trauma, which includes from gun violence. Even though conditions at times eliminate youngsters way too younger, firearm-similar accidents ended up the major trigger of demise for kids in the United States in 2020, in advance of motor auto crashes, in accordance to an investigation published in the New England Journal of Drugs.

The wraps for young children look like one thing a person “would see in a child’s room, not as a child’s casket,” said Damian Ferek, president of CasketWraps, the West Virginia company that designed Calyia’s customized casket. His corporation has been producing them because 2014, when the advertising company he runs obtained a request to wrap a casket. Kids’ caskets frequently characteristic superheroes and rainbows, unicorns and teddy bears, together with shots of the smiling small children.

Desmond Upton Patton, a professor of social work and sociology at Columbia University who researches grief and violence on social media, claimed this rising art form is a coping mechanism for grieving households. For some moms and dads, he stated, casket wraps let them to “take control of an encounter that they primarily experienced no management more than.”

Cemetery workers lower Calyia Stringer’s casket into the ground after the 3-year-old was killed by a stray bullet last year. Her casket featured a custom wrap designed by a local funeral home and Damian Ferek’s company, CasketWraps.
Cemetery employees lessen Calyia Stringer’s casket into the floor right after the 3-calendar year-previous was killed by a stray bullet last year. Her casket highlighted a tailor made wrap made by a nearby funeral home and Damian Ferek’s firm, CasketWraps. [ CARA A | KHN ]

In recent several years, he has noticed casket wraps pop up on Instagram, Facebook, and now TikTok as liked kinds share the artwork.

“It permits them to reimagine the narrative,” Patton said. “It’s a unique way of telling the tale of a liked one particular that moves past the pain and focuses on the natural beauty. That is a wonderful definition of resilience.”

Sukeena Gunner vividly remembers looking at her 14-year-old son’s casket following he was killed. A soaring football star, Jaylon McKenzie died 3 a long time ago just after photographs rang out at a residence bash in Venice, Illinois, just throughout the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

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“Once they opened the doorway, I observed my baby laying in that casket, it paralyzed me,” Gunner recalled. At that moment, Gunner claimed, she fell to her knees. But a series of photographs, like illustrations or photos of Jaylon in his soccer uniform, embossed on the outside of his casket assisted Gunner keep in mind the highlights of Jaylon’s life, not just his demise.

“He was a child that would run 40 touchdowns a yr, any place concerning 4 to 5 a sport,” Gunner stated.

The custom structure was a very first for Serenity Memorial Chapel, the funeral household in demand of Jaylon’s provider. Serenity’s proprietor and president, Gerald T. Johnson, who has worked in the funeral organization for much more than 25 many years, mentioned his funeral residence usually takes care of the preparations for victims of gunfire in the St. Louis region, exactly where these kinds of violence is persistent.

He has even noticed violence outside the house a single of the funerals his company arranged. Previously this year, a few persons were being shot in the parking large amount of Serenity’s St. Louis site. “The police did an investigation, took the tape down, and still left,” Johnson claimed. “And we nonetheless had the funeral.”

Tan Gates, Serenity’s typical supervisor, now regularly will work with Ferek’s business to make personalized casket wraps. She spends countless hours with grieving households. “It’s not just wrapping a casket, it is acquiring to know a individual,” Gates explained. “People are searching at death, but we see life in what we’re accomplishing.”

That’s why she appears for ways to comfort and ease family members as they mourn the loss of young children and youthful victims of gun violence. In addition to purchasing casket wraps, Gates generally goes shopping for a child’s beloved factors, these kinds of as stuffed animals and balloons.

The funeral personnel and artists do turn out to be invested. In August, Ferek drove much more than 600 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Belleville, Illinois, to deliver 5 tailor made caskets himself ahead of a funeral for five kids who died in an condominium fireplace. Every single casket featured the child’s identify and a photograph of them.

In Philadelphia, Harry Fash of Japanese Casket adds cartoon styles to caskets for children for free of charge. He researched art at Temple University for a yr ahead of switching his key to business enterprise. His skills as an artist enable him generate one of a kind lid inscriptions for caskets.

Positioned in the coronary heart of North Philadelphia, Japanese Casket opened in 1972. But it wasn’t until 2010 that it started producing vinyl casket layouts, also normally for gun violence victims. Requests vary from musical devices to popular cartoon characters. In latest many years, he mentioned, he produced a casket with a “Frozen” topic for a child killed in crossfire and a Spider-Person one for a baby who died when one more child unintentionally fired a gun that was not locked up.

“We are in an area identified as Nicetown,” Fash explained. “But it’s truly not that wonderful.”

Casket wraps are not exclusively for little ones. In Los Angeles, Shameka Nicholas served locate an artist to enhance the casket of her good friend Jermaine Carter, who had been a member of the Bloods and went by “O.Y.G. Redrum 781.”

Carter put in years marketing peace in the streets of Los Angeles and throughout the state. 6 months just before Carter died of cancer at age 49, he explained the kind of casket he desired to be buried in: one particular whose right half resembled a purple bandanna and whose left looked like a blue bandanna, to signify peace in the streets involving the Bloods and Crips. He preferred a black panther in the middle.

Nicholas questioned regardless of whether Carter’s vision could grow to be a reality, but Carter was assured.

“An artist is familiar with how to do it,” a online video shows Carter whispering to Nicholas. “An artist knows how to make a black panther head with the mouth open up, growling, with the green eyes, with the tooth. They know what they are performing. They are experienced.”

Victoria Lanier of Los Angeles Casket Wraps introduced his vision to lifetime.

Carter’s custom made casket charge about $2,000. But Lanier is thinking about turning the enterprise into a nonprofit. That way the public can make donations and she can serve extra family members who just cannot pay for to buy a casket wrap. Lanier mentioned requests for casket wraps have quadrupled considering the fact that she started out a few a long time ago.

“That’s portion of regard for the dead,” Lanier explained. “They experienced a footprint on the Earth. It’s just a quite charming way of honoring them.”

KHN (Kaiser Overall health Information) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about wellness issues. Collectively with Policy Investigation and Polling, KHN is one of the three key functioning applications at KFF (Kaiser Family Basis). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization supplying data on well being problems to the nation.


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