A day before Tequila Forshee was buried, the funeral director painted the girl’s tiny nails a shade of pink befitting a princess.
Tequila’s father walked into the viewing room later that day. He fought to quiet the emotions inside. The teenagers who shot up a house, killing his daughter, were still in the streets, and here he was five miles away in a funeral home saying farewell to her. Glenn Forshee gently placed a gold Hello Kitty necklace and bracelet on Tequila to complement her white dress.
In life, the manicure and jewelry were supposed to be the surprise birthday gift of a father for a daughter, gone 41 days shy of her 13th birthday. In death, it was among the many details of a princess-themed funeral for Tequila, an expression of grief bestowed upon children lost to gun violence in South Florida.
“All her birthday letters she wrote me, the Christmas cards she drew for me, she would sign it King Daddy,” he said. “My kids were real big on my daddy’s a king, we’re his princesses. So that’s where the whole princess theme came about.”
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With dozens of teens and children killed by gunfire every year in Miami-Dade — 13 already in 2016, nearly one each week — the traditions of funerals have broadened in the face of violence: the symbols and characters of childhood have been transformed into themed services, the personal way families celebrate the abbreviated lives of their children.
They are being celebrated for what they were: children and teens who adored sports, cars, princesses and superheroes, the badges of childhood.
“The themes are often based on a character that the kid identified with or loved,” said Dwight L. Jackson, the third-generation owner of Richardson Mortuary in Allapattah, which has planned Miami Dolphins, Cabbage Patch dolls and Barney services. “The themes are represented in caskets and flowers and symbols and pictures.”
The tenth and youngest victim this year was King Carter, 6, fatally shot in the chest on a Saturday afternoon in February on the way to buy candy. The first-grader had spent most every afternoon watching episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The crime-fighting characters tragically became the inspiration of his funeral. Marlon Eason, 10, struck by a bullet from a passing car, was buried in a bright yellow casket as a nod to his great love of cars. Nearly a decade earlier, Jeffrey Johnson Jr., a gifted student killed days before his high school graduation, was buried in an orange casket, his favorite color.
“What you are seeing is families honoring what made their loved one an individual, what made them unique. It’s their way of making the funeral special and meaningful,” said Chuck Bowman, secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association’s board of directors. “What is difficult is the childlike, happy themes with the unexpected death of a young person.”
The themes often serve another purpose, softening the mourning for other children who attend the funerals.
“Part of the theme process is that these are images that children are comfortable with and that they can understand,” said Bowman, who manages Horan & McConaty, the Denver funeral home that handled some of the services for victims of the Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 movie theater shooting. “Part of the tragedy of these kinds of funerals is the idea of unfulfilled promise so families try to create a service that is beyond the tragedy, that helps people focus on the good times.”
Jeffrey Johnson Sr. has spent the last 10 years trying to make peace with the loss of his only son, his junior. He often thinks of their last moments together. It was both ordinary and extraordinary. “It was a normal day. He told me he was going out. I never thought that I wouldn’t ever see him again. I said, ‘I love you,’ and he said, ‘I love you.’ I lot of kids don’t hug and kiss their parents. He could catch me off-guard and always say I love you.”
Jeffrey Jr., a senior at Carol City High School who wanted to be a lawyer, jumped into his 2002 Chevy Monte Carlo and headed to a house party in Liberty City. The car was tricked out and flashy, somewhere between pumpkin and burnt orange, with gull-wing doors and airbrushed art of Nemo, the fish. Johnson had given it to his son as a reward for excellent grades. After the party, Jeffrey Jr. got into a feud with another teen that started with an impromptu competition of who had the coolest ride. It ended with Jeffrey lying still in the street, shot by his rival’s friend.
“Jeffrey’s friend called me and said you got to get down here, Jeff got shot,” said Johnson, his voice thinning. “I immediately prayed.”
Before Johnson made could make it out of his Carol City neighborhood, his cellphone rang again. Jeffrey Jr., a popular Bright Futures scholar headed to St. Thomas University, was dead. As the community mourned the death of a boy with so much promise and the calls for the end of gun violence reached a crescendo, Johnson was left with the dreadful task of burying his 17-year-old son. He made a decision: what Jeffrey Jr. loved in life would be honored in death.
Jeffrey Lamar Johnson was laid to rest in an orange casket — his favorite color, the color of his beloved car and his high school, the Carol City Chiefs. Six months after the funeral, Johnson had an image of his son’s face airbrushed on the hood of the car.
“He loved the color orange. It was the school color, I wanted to celebrate his achievements in school. I tried to make it about him,” said Johnson, who has kept his son’s car in the driveway all these years. “The car is something that I can remember him by.”
Jeffrey Jr.’s service in 2006 was the first themed service done by Wright & Young Funeral in North Miami-Dade. “Jeffrey was a proud Chief. And we used a horse and carriage to make a statement that even though his life was taken, he still went out like a prince,” said owner Terry Wright.
Seven years later, the funeral home handled the arrangements for Tequila Forshee. The funeral director, Krystal Hale, painted the girl’s nails.
“We did the theme around what she loved to celebrate in her life. She always wanted her nails done, and her dad told her he would take her to get her nails done, but he never got the opportunity,” Hale said. “We wanted to make that special for him, to see that although you didn’t get that chance to take her, you will get that chance to see her with her nails done.”
Days after King Carter was killed, his mother was grieving in her small North Miami-Dade apartment. She felt like her world had just gotten immeasurably smaller, her youngest child suddenly gone. It just didn’t compute that she had seen him that morning, went to work and by mid-afternoon was rushing to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he died. Every time she tried to think about burying King, about never seeing him again, she fell apart.
Smith’s other two children brought King’s unfolded robe into the living room and placed it on her lap. Tears in her eyes, she looked at the little Ninja Turtle green robe and knew instantly what she wanted to do for son: a funeral highlighting his love of the characters and football.
“We thought about what he would have liked, what he would have enjoyed. We wanted to make it not sad, because King was not a sad person, he was a joyful person,” Smith said. “And we tried let everybody know that he was just a baby.”
The service, planned by Wright & Young, included a Ninja Turtle figure and yellow football goal post — King had played for the Liberty City Optimist Warriors. The aisle leading to the pulpit was covered to look like a football field. Four relatives and friends wearing bright green Ninja Turtle costumes served as the pallbearers, escorting King’s tiny white casket into the sanctuary. King’s father had given him an aspirational name, so before the casket’s lid was lowered, a crown was rested upon his head.
Last March, Marlon Eason was dribbling his basketball in the front yard of his Overtown home. His grandmother, Dorothy Ruffin, was in the living room, steps away. Suddenly, she heard gunshots. She ran outside. She told Marlon to run. Then she told him to get up. But it was too late. Her youngest grandson was on the walkway, bleeding from his head, caught in a blast of bullets fired by feuding teenagers linked to a murder that had unfolded 90 minutes before.
Marlon, a fifth-grader known as “Lil Merv,” was wowed by fast and fancy cars, Transformers action figures, superheroes, all loves that would become the inspiration for his service.
From the moment Marlon’s family began planning his funeral with Richardson Mortuary, they focused on what had defined much of his childhood and making the service friendly for the other children who would attend. Buried the day before Easter, his casket was bright yellow with black racing stripes. It was adorned with cascading flower arrangements including one fashioned into Spider-Man, and another of a basketball swishing through a net.
“We made the choices on how to bury Marlon based on his what he loved and what he lived for, the superheroes, the Avengers, Batman, Superman and the Transformers,” said Marlon’s uncle, Richard Ruffin. “He absolutely loved Camaro cars, especially the yellow ones with black stripes because they looked like the Transformer Bumblebee. Within the casket was a picture of of him with his basketball. He loved basketball. He died playing basketball.”
At the start of Tequila Forshee’s funeral, the family and other children walked into the church. Her father, Glenn Forshee, was last in the procession. He walked to her open casket, a tiara in hand. Forshee stood before his daughter, the one they called “Tee Tee,” the one who was so excited about starting seventh grade, the one who wanted to be a chef when she grew up.
“When I took the crown and placed it on her head inside the coffin, it was a sign to show her and the world that she was the princess of my heart,” he said. “I remembered kissing her and everything … I was nervous and I was scared and I told myself, man this is the only time you’re ever going to be able to do this. After this, they’re going to close the coffin and you’re never going to see your daughter again.”