The nation’s only manufacturer of children’s coffins received 19 urgent orders in the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
“When we had Sandy Hook, that was another crazy day,” Mike Mims, CEO of Cherokee Caskets of Georgia, told The Daily Beast. “So we’re tired. We’re tired of doing these things.”
The Cherokee factory in Griffin, Georgia, ran full-tilt for 20 straight hours from Wednesday into Thursday. One difference between the two school massacres was that the 20 coffins after Sandy Hook in 2012 went to individual funeral directors in Connecticut. The funeral directors in Uvalde decided that it should all go through a single casket distributor and customizer, Trey Ganem of SoulShine Industries in Edna, Texas.
Ganem had managed to handle most of the coffins for the 26 killed in the Sutherlands Spring church mass shooting in 2017. He was now asked to furnish caskets for the 21 who died at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, including the two teachers.
“The funeral directors know who I am, and they said, ‘If anybody can do it, you can. Would you help out in Uvalde?’” Ganem told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘100 percent.’”
Ganem added that he would cover the cost of the coffins, around $3,400 each. And he would not charge for any customizing.
The 19 child-size coffins were scheduled to arrive at SoulShine at 2 a.m. Friday.
“We already have the adult [coffins],” Ganem told The Daily Beast as he returned from buying extra paint.
Ganem began consulting with the Uvalde families on Wednesday at the Civic Center and on Thursday at their homes. He sought to determine what individual touches they might want.
“I’ll sit down with them and they tell me all the stories about their loved one—if they love ponies, if they love butterflies or arts or softball,” Ganem told The Daily Beast. “And when they’re telling me these things about their loved one, I can see them light up on very specific things.”
He will incorporate it all into jumbo computer-generated images.
“Without calling it a sticker, it is in effect a huge sticker,” Ganem said. “They call them wraps instead of stickers now, but it’s a giant one. It can go around corners, you can heat it, cut it, shape it the way you want.”
The family of one Uvalde victim told Ganem that their murdered daughter loved to hike.
“They sent us pictures of her hiking and in the mountains,” he reported. “And we’re actually putting them in with the wrap and we’ll incorporate the colors on the exterior to go with that. So it’ll look like a giant photo across the top of the casket. And it’s gonna be beautiful.”
Ganem wanted only to handle adults when he first met Mims of Cherokee at a trade show more than a decade ago. Mims had encountered others in the industry who asked him why he stayed in the child-casket business when sales had sharply declined along with child mortality as a result improved health care, nutrition, and highway safety. But Ganem’s feelings about Mims’ niche had nothing to do with money.
“He saw that I did children’s caskets and he says, ‘Oh, I just can’t do children,’” Mims recalled.
Ganem later told The Daily Beast, “Kids are hard for me. And that’s why I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”
Not long afterward, Ganem ended up handling his first deceased child. He had previously customized the coffin of a well-known adult musician with a replica of a dead man’s guitar. He now prepared a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-themed coffin for the child, who was laid out in a karate suit. The family invited him to attend the service and he watched the boy’s friends arrive.
“All these little kids, his little buddies came in and said, ‘Oh cool, Mom, I want one!’ It took the sting out of it.”
The family came up to him.
“They just hugged me and said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for us just doing this because now I see my little karate guy up there and he loved Ninja Turtles.’”
Ganem had a new mission.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t want any kid to be left without a custom casket,’” he recalled.
He worked on many more child caskets and found he had a gift for divining exactly what the family wanted.
“And you can just kind of visualize it as they’re talking to you,’’ he said.
“I am the casket whisperer.”
As of Thursday, he had spoken with 10 of the Uvalde families.
“The other ones have not been to the funeral homes yet,” he said. “They are starting to come in today and mind you, a lot of ’em haven’t received their kids back. [The kids] are at the medical examiner office. But some already know who I am and have already contacted me personally.”
He reported that none of the families he had conferred with have declined his offer to customize the coffin.
“I told them if they wanted a plain casket, they can,” he reported. “But, I’m probably pretty sure that we’re not gonna have any plain caskets.”
He said that includes the family of at least one of the teachers, whose coffin is among the six he has to deliver this weekend, with the other 15 due next week. His crew of five workers was poised to start working the minute the coffins arrived from Cherokee. His 25-year-old son, Billy, will apply the wraps on one and go on to the next.
“Thank God I have a heated paint booth,” Ganem said. “In 30 minutes, the paint’s dry. We’ll be putting two at a time in there.”
He added, “We can do it. We just have to put our crunch time together.”
He reported that numerous people have volunteered to help.
“They said, ‘We don’t have a lot of money, but we will come sand, we will help deliver,’” he reported.
He then said, “It warms my heart to know that there’s still great people in this country, in the world.”