Meet The Man Personalizing Caskets For The Children Killed In The Uvalde School Shooting
Custom casket-maker Trey Ganem is among the professionals providing funeral services to the victims’ families free of charge.
UVALDE, Texas — Eliahna Torres loved llamas.
She loved TikTok too, especially the videos that teach you how to make slime.
“She would tell me that she needed glue for school because she had a big ole project to do, and the glue would be to make slime,” Sandra Torres, her mother, told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. “She drove us crazy with the TikTok.”
So when custom casket-maker Trey Ganem met with family members in Uvalde — a day after a shooter killed 19 children and two adults — Eliahna’s mother got to talk about the things that made her daughter happy as they planned a design: one with llamas, TikTok’s logo, and a splash of neon yellow slime, which also symbolized Eliahna’s passion for softball.
It’s an enormous task for a small town with its limited local resources to memorialize 21 people back-to-back, and the charge becomes even more daunting when 19 of them are children. The race to supply caskets for 19 children began when Ganem, of SoulShine Industries, responded to messages on Facebook and a few calls from people in the death care industry, including one from someone at the Texas Funeral Directors Association asking for help.
“I think there were 17 at the time that he knew of, and [he] wanted to know if I would be able to help out and make sure that all these kids have, you know, some personalization,” Ganem, 50, told BuzzFeed News.
But smaller caskets are rarely stocked in bulk. So Ganem, who is based in Edna, Texas, near the Gulf Coast, had to order them from a manufacturer in Griffin, Georgia, potentially jeopardizing on-time deliveries for grieving families whose funeral services would start within a week.
Ganem said the manufacturer worked for 20 hours straight to get the orders out on time. Then his close friend Bubba Hoffman hired a Texas trucking company to make the 26-hour trip from Texas to Georgia and then back to Texas. When the delivery arrived at 2 a.m. Friday, Ganem and his son Billy Ganem worked nonstop, getting only a couple of hours of sleep. The father and son usually manage the shop alone, but Trey Ganem said as many as a dozen people volunteered to help, some of whom traveled to Edna from as far as Corpus Christi, Texas, to help paint, sand, and apply vinyl to the child-size caskets.
By Saturday, the crew was making the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Uvalde from Edna to donate eight completed caskets. Ganem expects to deliver the remaining caskets Sunday. In all, he prepared 19 caskets for Uvalde victims: 18 of the 19 children and one adult.
“It has been an extremely emotional roller coaster for me,” Ganem said during a phone interview. “I don't even know if you can hear my voice. I haven't hollered at all, but I'm losing my voice, for whatever reason.”
About 11 years ago, Ganem traded building custom cars for the casket business. His son joined him in 2016. For both of them, this massive undertaking was similar to the one just five years ago, when another shooter killed 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Their work for those families also left them exhausted, but with the hope that they’d taken on some of the burden of those burying a child.
If families don’t have a specific request, they try to get a sense of the person’s interests. They’ve molded standard-size caskets into the shape of ’57 Chevys and transformed children’s-size ones into Batmobiles in the past. The Ganems offered Uvalde residents their services free of charge, relieving parents of the typical $3,400 to $3,800 price tag.
“We’re here to try to make a hard time a little easier,” Billy Ganem, 25, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s nothing we can really ever do to make it easier, but that’s our goal: to help the families ... start their grieving and their healing and just try to make something special for them.”
The connection between the Ganems and the people they serve starts when they meet the grieving parents — a time when parents relay a play-by-play of what their loved one used to treasure.
“I take away something from every experience with a family because when they're explaining stuff about their child, they light up,” Trey Ganem said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, he loved this,' you know?”
That's the flash of joy Torres relayed when describing to BuzzFeed News her vision for her 10-year-old daughter’s final resting place — a whimsical collection of Eliahna’s favorite things.
“Picture like green pastures, and then there’s cows and rainbows and llamas,” Torres said. And then she described her daughter’s infatuation with TikTok; the experiments inspired by the platform always roped in Eliahna’s grandfather.
“Her grandpa Victor did everything for her, so when she wanted to go to H-E-B, she’d say ‘Grandpa, I need to go to H-E-B. I need this stuff! I need this stuff!’ So she would go to H-E-B and bring back all this stuff and destroy my mom's kitchen experimenting with everything that TikTok was telling her to do.”
Residents of Uvalde are in the initial stages of grief. Funeral masses at Sacred Heart Catholic Church begin Tuesday. Herby Ham Adult Activity Center is booked with funeral receptions throughout June. And the local funeral home, Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary, which is serving 17 of the 19 children’s families, has funerals booked until June 13, according to the lead funeral director.
The families have received an outpouring of generosity, so no one is charging them for services. And the Ganems are hoping they can provide something beyond a relief of financial stress: a reminder of what made each child unique. The families' requests have been unforgettable, Trey Ganem said.
“There was one that wanted dinosaurs, with flashlights, holding a pickle,” he said.