Funerals Begin for Uvalde Shooting's 21 Victims


UVALDE, Texas — A week after the school shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers, this small town is preparing for the first of many funerals — a marathon of grief.

This week, services are planned for 11 children and teacher Irma Garcia. The first is for Amerie Jo Garza, 10, who will be buried Tuesday in a casket painted and shrink-wrapped with customized art of her favorite things, said designer Trey Ganem.

Amerie Jo's family described her in her obituary as an avid swimmer who aspired to become an art teacher, "a kind, caring, blunt, loving, sweet, sassy and of course funny little diva who 'hated dresses,'" loved Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccinos. Her family wrote that Amerie Jo was "a protector of her [3-year-old] brother and as we now know her classmates" — an allusion to reports that she and other children tried to call 911 as the shooter attacked their class at Robb Elementary School.

Ganem's company, SoulShine Industries, designed and donated all but one of the children's caskets after he consulted with their families. (One family member wanted to design their own, he said.)

He declined to release details about Amerie Jo's casket design but said her family and those of the other victims were excited to talk to him "because of the joy that person gave them. They're remembering the good times."

"There was TikTok, softball, horses, dinosaurs, hiking. One girl wanted to be a marine biologist, so we put whales and dolphins on hers," said Ganem, who drove the last few caskets 220 miles west from his company's base in Edna, Texas, over the holiday weekend.

Most of the children's funerals will be open casket, Ganem said. But for those like Amerie Jo's that are closed, he said, "we put their picture on the outside of the casket. With that, the families can see their child for a last time."

Amerie Jo's visitation and rosary started Monday at Hillcrest Funeral Home, where children had been evacuated to from Robb Elementary. The school was still a crime scene this week, investigators darting in and out past yellow police tape. Outside, hundreds of people flocked to a growing memorial featuring life-size photos of the victims piled with flowers and stuffed animals.

Amerie Jo's aunt, Desirae Garza, 33, lives down the street from the school. Walking to her niece's rosary late Monday, wearing a "Uvalde Strong" T-shirt, she avoided the giant crowds near the school — most people from other Texas cities but some from as far as California, Florida and New York.

"It's been hard for my brother and his wife," she said before entering the funeral home. "Once all this is gone, we'll still be grieving."

Retiree Yrma Fuentes, 75, also joined the rosary for Amerie Jo, because she'd known her grandfather and father for years, and planned to attend the funeral at Uvalde's Sacred Heart Catholic Church. A reception was scheduled to follow at the local American Legion Hall. The Herby Ham Adult Activity Center was booked with funeral receptions throughout June.

"I'm mourning with my neighbors, with my humble town," Fuentes said as she headed to the funeral home with a black ribbon pinned to her chest. "I've lived here all my life. What hurts my neighbors, my community, hurts me."

Jimmy Lucas, president of the Texas Funerals Directors Assn., drove to Uvalde from Fort Worth to assist the town's two funeral homes Tuesday, starting with Amerie Jo's funeral.

"While we're funeral directors and we deal with loss and tragedy every day, this is above and beyond," Lucas said. "Just the sheer number of services."

Many people have volunteered to cover funeral expenses for the victims, including local companies and an anonymous donor who gave $175,000.

While Amerie Jo and most of the children will have funeral Masses at Sacred Heart, Uvalde's only Roman Catholic church, some services will be held at the funeral homes, including the one for Eliahana Torres, 10, on Thursday. Her family called her "a master of jests who loved making people laugh" but who was also "nurturing and always putting others before herself," according to her obituary.

Like Amerie Jo's, Eliahana's casket — also designed by Ganem — will feature pictures of some of her favorite things: TikTok, softball and yellow slime, said her uncle Rudy Aguero.

Aguero, 47, who works at the front desk of an emergency room in San Antonio, is accustomed to other people's tragedies. He said that the children's deaths still seemed surreal, that the week anniversary of the shooting "approached so fast."

"We still have the most difficult days ahead of us," Aguero said as he stood with relatives on his stepfather's front lawn, near a purple ribbon on the mailbox signifying that they were among those in mourning.

Eliahana's casket is to be open for her funeral.

"We finally get to see and say goodbye to her," Aguero said.

He has been having trouble sleeping. He's been angry but also plagued by thoughts of his niece's final moments with the gunman.

"What keeps me up is not knowing: Was she the first? Was she in the middle? Was she scared? What were her final thoughts?" Aguero said.

Police waited outside Robb Elementary for more than an hour before moving in, believing that the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was barricaded inside and no longer shooting, officials said. Police have faced criticism for not confronting Ramos sooner, and the Justice Department announced Sunday that it would review law enforcement's response.

In a town as small as Uvalde, home to about 16,000 people, almost everyone knows one — and often many — of the victim's families and plans to attend at least one of the funerals.

"Somehow or another we're connected to all of them," said Ana Santos as she distributed water to those visiting the memorial at Robb Elementary over the weekend.

Santos, 62, worked in the school's cafeteria: "We knew all the little faces from the register."

One of her former co-workers is Nelda Lugo, grandmother of 9-year-old victim Ellie Garcia. Santos planned to attend Ellie's funeral June 6 — two days after what would have been the girl's 10th birthday. Santos said that Lugo had told her: "I won't believe it until I see her in the coffin."

A visitation for Maite Rodriguez, 10, an honor student who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, was also held Monday, with services at the funeral home scheduled for Tuesday night.

At Sacred Heart, Rev. Eduardo Morales has been meeting with families and has a group of counselors from Catholic Charities on site to help for the next six months. He's also heard from hospital staff traumatized by the attack and law-enforcement personnel who responded to the scene and have since faced criticism for not acting quickly enough to save lives.

Morales, 62, is from Uvalde, grew up at the church and has served as parish priest for the last six years, burying fewer children during all of that time than were killed in the May 24 shooting. On Sunday, he met President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden when they joined his Mass, and the president requested a blessing. On Monday, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, who Morales said was an old friend, called to check on him.

Morales plans to officiate the children's funeral Masses, as well as a combined Mass on Wednesday for teacher and mother of four Irma Garcia, who was killed in the shooting, and her husband, Joe Garcia, who died of a heart attack two days later. The couple grew up together in Uvalde and were high school sweethearts, married at the church 25 years ago.

"I'm doing funerals for people I've known all my life," Morales said, including at least one girl killed in the shooting who had celebrated her first Communion with him.

Morales plans to include stories about each child in his homilies at their funeral Masses, as well as a message: "Don't celebrate the death — celebrate the life, the blessings these children brought, even in their short lives."

Morales worries about the ongoing private suffering, especially of those closest to the victims, after the public spotlight shifts from Uvalde.

"My concern is that all of this is going to come to an end," he said. "Everyone's going to leave, and we're going to try to go back to normal. I hope we don't forget the families."