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    Wearing grief on their sleeves

    When teens lose their friends, memorial T-shirts speak just the right language.

    By MARCUS FRANKLIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2003


    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    At a memorial service last week, Dashea Lewis, 13, wears one of the hundreds of memorial T-shirts made mourning three teens who died in a March 3 car crash in St. Petersburg.
    ST. PETERSBURG -- Forbes Swisher added another T-shirt to his closet this month. It bears the face and shirtless torso of his friend Dortez Bizzell, a 14-year-old who died with two friends in the predawn crash of a stolen car.

    It's at least the fifth T-shirt that Forbes, 15, has bought to honor a friend who died. The day Dortez died Forbes was wearing a shirt for Ronald "Lil Ron" Durham, who was killed after a confrontation at a St. Petersburg teen dance.

    For Forbes and others, sometimes a T-shirt is not just a T-shirt. Long used to convey humorous, political, religious and even offensive messages, T-shirts now help memorialize the dead.

    "You wear them because they're your (friends) and you're going to miss them," said Forbes, a St. Petersburg High School freshman, who also finds a deeper meaning in the shirts.

    "Another reason I get the shirts is because sometimes it changes the inside, the way you think," he said. "It might make you think twice about fighting. And, like how Dortez died in a car accident in a stolen car -- it makes people think twice about stealing a car and being home on time."

    The "RIP" tee, which in some families is as much a part of burial arrangements as flowers, began appearing as early as the 1990s on the West Coast, growing out of assorted memorial tributes to slain gang members, said Karla F.C. Holloway, dean of humanities and social sciences at Duke University in North Carolina.

    These days, the shirts find their way into the closets of a variety of people. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the shirts gained popularity when many began wearing them in honor of firefighters and police officers who died in the attacks. Local T-shirt shops say many of the shirts they produce memorialize those who died young and violently, but some also honor family matriarchs and beloved ministers.

    It's unlikely the cotton commemorations will outlast traditional memorials made of wood or stone. But with the widespread use of computer scanners, the shirts are easy to make and replicate. They sell relatively inexpensively, running $10 to $15 each.

    At Scorpio's Custom Design Photo T-Shirts on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg, 85 percent of the store's T-shirt business is memorials, said owner Dre Mott, 35.

    A color poster advertisement for the shop shows 21 photos used on memorial T-shirts. At least four of the faces belonged to teenage males, including TyRon Lewis, killed in 1996 by a St. Petersburg police officer; five more to men in their 20s; and another five to men in their early 30s. In one photo, two young men appear with the caption: Why (do) the Good Die Young?

    Many in the photos, Mott said, died in car crashes, homicides and suicides, the leading causes of death for people 30 and under, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

    "It's unfortunate, but a lot of the younger ones died violently," said Mott, whose shop draws customers from Sarasota, Bradenton and Clearwater. "The big jobs come from memorials. It gives kids a way to idolize their friends. It's a way people remember their loved ones, especially if they were popular in school or in the (neighborhood). The more popular they were, the more the shirt sells. It's like tradition almost around here."

    Holloway, of Duke, said the shirts' popularity among teens proves that many children are haunted by death and demonstrates their need to ritualize and "own" their friends' deaths.

    But she added that the practice is among the latest products in a cottage industry that profits from death, particularly the sudden, violent deaths of the young. Those products, Holloway said, also include "write-on caskets," on which friends can write messages.

    "I find it ordinary for America but pitifully ordinary, because businesses are making a profit based on the market of our children's bodies," said Holloway, who authored a book about death, burial and mourning practices among African-Americans.

    A month after Durham was shot outside a Valentine's Day dance at Campbell Park Recreation Center, Mott's shop is still filling T-shirt orders in memory of the St. Petersburg High School student. Already, Mott has sold at least 300 shirts to Durham's friends and relatives.

    Slain teenagers do not account for all memorial T-shirts. The shirt for Bishop John L. Copeland, the prominent 63-year-old St. Petersburg minister who died last April, sold about 400, Mott said. Copeland once was president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an umbrella group of churches, and pastor of Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church for more than two decades.

    "We did it so other people could have a piece of our father as well," Jeffrey Copeland said, adding that the family had another 400 or so T-shirts done at another shop. "A lot of people just wanted a piece of my father. It's been almost a year and I still see people wearing the T-shirts. It's a good feeling to see that people miss my father as much as we do."

    At T-Shirt Tim's in Tampa, most of the business comes from company T-shirts. But last year owner Martha Gehring began seeing increased demand for memorial shirts. The store does about one order a month, she said.

    In one instance last year, a Tampa family called to inquire about having T-shirts made for its reunion, which was coming up in July. But tragedy changed those plans. In June, the 63-year-old "backbone" of the family and her 2-year-old granddaughter died of injuries from a house fire.

    The family scrapped plans for traditional reunion T-shirts and ordered shirts with pictures of the woman and girl, Gehring said.

    "Everybody wore them at the family reunion."

    But the shirts, which some families have sold to help cover funeral costs, remain most popular among teenagers and young adults.

    At a memorial service last week for Dortez Bizzell, 14, Rashad Golden, 14, and Candice Jennerich, 15, the three teens killed in the March 3 car crash in St. Petersburg, T-shirts bearing their pictures could be seen everywhere in the sea of grieving teenagers. The scene was evidence of their need to grieve collectively and force others -- particularly adults -- to confront their sorrow, grief experts said.

    Destini Lewis, 14, was among a group of girls each wearing a shirt with their friend Candice's picture. The girls, both freshmen, became friends after Candice invited Destini to sit with her in the cafeteria one day at the beginning of the school year.

    "We were always together," said Destini, wiping tears from her face. "We always had each other's back. We cared for each other."

    The memorial T-shirt is Destini's first. She hopes there won't be an opportunity to buy another one.

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