CHICAGO (Reuters) - At the crowded funeral of 13-year-old Demureye’ Macon, who was shot on a Chicago street, older mourners wore sober suits and dresses in beige and black.
But Macon’s peers came dressed in colorful tributes to the seventh-grader, sporting T-shirts, jackets and bandanas bearing the deceased’s photo, his birth and death dates and messages including “Long Live the King” and “RIP Demureye.”
“He was like my little brother,” Macon’s friend Joshua Reynolds, 16, said at the funeral last week. Reynolds wore a shirt that read “My Brother’s Keeper.”
Custom-made “RIP” shirts for young victims of violence, accident or illness have become increasingly popular in recent years, according to the head of a national support group for families who have lost children. The shirts have become ubiquitous at the funerals of young victims of gun violence in Chicago, which had 414 murders in 2013.
“There’s been a paradigm shift with younger people,” said Alan Pedersen, executive director of The Compassionate Friends, based in Oak Brook, Illinois. “They’re proud to display their grief and that they love and miss somebody.”
William “Surf” Ryals, owner of T.B Customs on Chicago’s South Side, said people began asking him for custom memorial shirts in the 1990s. At that time, mourners did not wear them to funerals but to meals after services or on the deceased person’s birthday. The shirts were artistic and expensive, with rhinestones and poems.
Over the past five years, he said, young mourners have increasingly chosen to wear them to funerals. The shirts are now 40 percent of his business, he estimated.
“It’s become the latest fashion,” said Ryals, who fears some people don’t take the shirts as seriously as in the past.
Philip Danzy, owner of a Chicago graphics company called It’s Major, said the shirts are almost always for young people’s funerals. Sometimes he’ll get an order for a whole family or neighborhood.
“They can’t afford to give the family anything. It’s showing support, instead of giving somebody flowers,” said Danzy, who has himself lost a son to gun violence.
Danzy said some people want family photos on their shirts, but others want gang colors. “We don’t discriminate,” he said, though he added that he won’t do anything threatening and won’t depict guns.
Deon Cleveland, 34, said he wanted his shirt to honor his cousin Demureye’ - whose murder is still under investigation - and to send a message against violence. Written in silver glitter on the back of Cleveland’s dark-blue shirt were the words, “If it ain’t no hope for the youth/It ain’t no hope for the future.”
Diane Latiker, who has worked with many teens coping with gun violence in her “Kids Off the Block” program in Chicago, said she doesn’t object to the messages on RIP shirts, even if they’re vulgar sometimes.
“Who am I to say how they mourn?” she asked.
Editing by Scott Malone and Douglas Royalty