With Shiny Pink And Camo, Casket Designer Honors Texas Shooting Victims

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 10, 2017 10:18 pm

In the middle of the showroom at Trey Ganem Designs is a small casket on a rolling cart. It's not yet fully assembled, but it is painted a dazzling, sparkling pink.

The casket is for a little girl – one of the 26 lives lost in Sunday's massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

"Her dad just said, 'That's my princess,' " Trey Ganem says, so Ganem is building her a princess casket to be laid to rest.

Ganem, who creates customized caskets in a tiny Texas town about two hours away from Sutherland Springs, has offered to build caskets for the victims of the shooting, free of charge to their families.

"This is something we want to take off their hands," he says. "And hopefully it will be something for them to celebrate about."

When most people see caskets, they see death, Ganem says. "Our caskets, you see the life of the person that's in it."

His shop and showroom in Edna, Texas, is filled with incredibly detailed coffins — there's one painted like the Texas state flag; another like a Louis Vuitton bag; and another still, shaped and painted like a bright red '57 Chevy, complete with working headlights.

To build a customized coffin, you have to know the person who will be in it, Ganem says.

For the past few days, Ganem and his assistant Tiffany Sublett have been talking to funeral home directors and families of the deceased. They take down notes — double-checking the spelling of the victims' names; asking about favorite colors, movies and pets.

"Does she have a favorite character on My Little Pony that's her favorite, do you know?" Sublett asks the funeral home director for Sutherland Springs during a phone call.

The notes she writes are heartbreaking.

"Star Wars."

"Cooking."

"Music."

"Kittens."

"Hunting."

"I have a 2-year-old son and I'm pregnant," Sublett says. "So, I mean, it's all sad. It's tragic. The amount of small children that are gone and the stories, just hearing and talking to the families. It's definitely emotional."

And chronicling those lives is especially difficult when it hits so close to home.

There are about two degrees of separation here in South Texas, so Ganem knows some people who live in Sutherland Springs and went to the church.

"I had just got finished from helping some of the Las Vegas victims and, you know, I just left that," he says. "And to come back here and think this is Texas, a small town, to hear [about the attack] was just unreal."

Ganem has since spent some time at a hospital with family, who were waiting and praying for other family members who were injured. Sublett has been working the phones.

For Maggie Rivera, the reality of what had happened didn't fully hit her until she walked into Ganem's shop. She and her husband, Michael, drove down here from San Antonio to volunteer their time and help.

"The first casket they gave us was a little 4-by-6 one, and in the corner over there, there's the little toy from Cars — Mater — and Mickey Mouse and that's my son's favorite," she says. "I just had to take a moment to sit back."

One of the victims was 17 months old. The Riveras have an 18-month-old son at home.

"It really puts things in perspective," she says, sanding a casket to prepare it for painting.

In the back of the shop, Michael Rivera walks out of a heated room where he has been painting casket handles. He has blue paint staining the palms of his hands. Nearly the rest of his body is covered in tattoos.

Michael paints cars for a living normally — hot rods, motorcycles, trucks.

"I'd never painted a coffin before in my life," he says, pouring metallic-silver paint into a spray gun.

But he and his wife decided to volunteer as soon as they heard that Ganem was offering the families free caskets. Michael grew up in Sutherland Springs and he, like his wife, is shaken by the shooting.

He gestures to the shiny pink casket on the showroom floor.

"I know that's for a 6-year-old little girl. And that's hard to even imagine," he says. "For lack of better words, it just sucks. It's for a little kid at the beginning of their life."

Rivera, like everyone at the shop, is hopeful that their efforts will help the families of the victims begin the long process of healing. In the meantime, working and doing something positive, he says, is helping them.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

As they remember the dead, the people in and around Sutherland Springs are taking care of each other. Laura Morales made sandwiches for people. Ronald Morrison brought venison sausage and flowers. The people we're going to hear from in this next story had something more somber but practical to offer - a final resting place for those who were killed. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Tiffany Sublett and Trey Ganem are sitting in front of a computer about two hours away from Sutherland Springs in another tiny Texas town.

TREY GANEM: Yeah, click on that one.

TIFFANY SUBLETT: This one?

GANEM: Uh-huh (ph).

ROTT: On the screen in front of them is a purple rectangle, swooping musical notes and the name of a little girl. What they need is a picture of a cat.

GANEM: She had a little black and gray kitten, so that's kind of like what you're looking at there. Let me see here.

ROTT: Ganem builds customized caskets designed to represent and celebrate a person's life. In his shop in Edna, there are rows of incredibly detailed ones. There's a Texas state flag. Another is shaped and painted like a bright red '57 Chevy with working headlights. On a rolling cart is a small casket, not yet fully assembled, painted a dazzling, sparkling pink.

GANEM: Dad asked for a princess for his daughter. And then the other daughter loved music and cats. So...

ROTT: So they're looking for pictures of both. After the shooting, Ganem offered free caskets to the families. It's about two degrees of separation here in South Texas, so he knows a number of people in Sutherland Springs, some who went to the church.

GANEM: I won't say names and stuff, but...

ROTT: Yeah.

GANEM: ...You know, for them, but yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

GANEM: It's another San Antonio.

ROTT: They got eight orders at first, and the phone just keeps ringing.

SUBLETT: Yeah, can you hold on one second, please?

ROTT: Here, I'll let you.

SUBLETT: Gail, Sutherland Springs funeral home director.

ROTT: It's the Sutherland Springs funeral home director.

GANEM: This is Trey.

ROTT: Another four caskets are needed - thousands of dollars normally. Sublett writes down the names of the victims, the colors and the things that they loved.

SUBLETT: Does she have a certain character on "My Little Pony" that's her favorite?

ROTT: It goes on like this for a while. And honestly, it's really hard to hear. After she hangs up, Sublett says it's hard for her, too.

SUBLETT: So I have a 2-year-old son and I'm pregnant. So, I mean, it's all sad. It's tragic. The amount of small children that were gone and the stories you - just hearing and talking to the families, it's definitely emotional.

ROTT: It's that way for everybody at the shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANDING)

ROTT: Kenneth Burnett and Maggie Rivera are sanding a casket, readying it for a pink camouflage paint job.

MAGGIE RIVERA: We're all here for the same reason. You know, to help, to at least bring some - I don't want to say peace, but at least bring...

KENNETH BURNETT: Joy.

MAGGIE RIVERA: Yeah.

ROTT: Joy. Maggie's husband, Michael Rivera, is in a loud room in the back of the shop painting casket handles. Normally Rivera paints cars for a living, but he and his wife decided to drive down from San Antonio after they saw the news and heard that Ganem was offering free caskets. Michael grew up in Sutherland Springs, and they have an 18-month-old son, one month older than the youngest victim of the shooting.

MICHAEL RIVERA: My son has the same exact toy that they're going to put with one of the caskets. And it's kind of - it's eerie. It's sad.

ROTT: But being here, he says, volunteering his time and knowledge helps. And hopefully it will ease some of the grief that the families are experiencing, and it will do the same for them. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Edna, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.