Thursday, March 23, 2023

Rosaries, bouquets and tiny caskets: Uvalde begins to bury its dead


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UVALDE, Tex. — The family of a 10-year-old shooting victim made a prayer circle in the yard here Monday as the temperatures rose and the mourners came.

The relatives of Jayce Luevanos didn’t know what else to do, the boy’s uncle said in a brief interview. “With the funerals getting closer and closer, it’s getting harder and harder,” said the uncle, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of respect for his nephew’s memory.

American flags fluttered in the hot wind Monday as Memorial Day dawned in Uvalde, a day of mourning and remembrance that had an unfathomable overlay of grief this year because this close-knit town of 15,000 near the Mexico border was beginning to bury its dead — the 19 students and two teachers gunned down at Robb Elementary School last Tuesday.

The first days of anger and grief over the senseless tragedy, made worse by catastrophic mistakes by law enforcement, gave way to the difficult but necessary period of mourning — a relentless cycle of visitations, rosaries, funerals and receptions that began Monday and will stretch until June 16.

Priests who last week comforted still-bleeding children and pastors who prayed with anxious parents on Monday turned to the familiar rituals surrounding Christian burials. Volunteers flew and drove in from across Texas and all over the country to help with various aspects of the funerals. Operators of a food truck handed out food and water. Florists shaped casket “sprays.” The head of the Texas Funeral Directors Association brought in an extra funeral coach along with other morticians — some experts at the art of facial reconstruction — to assist.

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As the priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church — the only Catholic church in Uvalde — Father Eduardo Morales was bracing for a calendar of incessant grief, a kind of schedule that can follow only a mass-casualty event like the one that shook the nation here last Tuesday.

Morales, known as “Father Eddy,” will host funeral after funeral for the victims practically every day beginning Tuesday — sometimes two in one day, about a dozen in all.

“Everyone here knows someone who was killed,” he said at the church after Saturday Mass. “There’s going to be a lot of tears and a lot of sadness … but as we continue to celebrate their lives, they will turn into tears of joy.”

Before returning to his hometown to lead Sacred Heart six years ago, Morales buried parishioners he knew, he said. But never like this.

“I’m burying parishioners, but it’s people I’ve known all my life — and that’s what makes it difficult,” he said.

Morales finds himself constantly searching for the right words to say. In the conversations he’s had since last week’s massacre, and in the words he uttered at Mass, Morales said he has tried to emphasize one thing: “It’s okay to be angry,” he has repeated. “But that anger can’t hurt into hate.”

On Monday, Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home — the low-slung white mortuary just steps from Robb Elementary that had sheltered injured students fleeing the gunman — reopened its doors for an afternoon-long visitation for Amerie Jo Garza, 10. Garza was an honor student and remembered as a creative child who kissed her 3-year-old brother every day on the way to school. That little boy now weeps, confused by his big sister’s absence, her family has said.

Outside the funeral home, however, tempers flared as mourners tried to negotiate a gaggle of international media. One reporter tried unsuccessfully to enter the building, and police officers — some from the many law enforcement agencies outside of Uvalde that have descended upon the town to assist local authorities — pushed the journalists back to the street. Authorities have instructed some victims’ families not to speak to the media; the other local funeral home in town, Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary, posted a note on its website that read, “We respectfully ask for NO reporters or photographers on property grounds.”

A visitation for Maite Rodriguez, 10, an honor student who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, was also held Monday.

Police on Monday opened up the road around the Robb Elementary for the first time since the killings. A steady stream of mourners, onlookers and curiosity-seekers — most of them from out of town — came to cry or to see and photograph the impromptu memorial that has sprung up around the elementary school’s sign, where white crosses mark the names of the dead. The area was carpeted with thousands of bouquets and toys, and on Monday, people were still bringing more. One woman arrived with a plastic tote full of stuffed animals. Groups of worshipers prayed in both in English and Spanish, with one man shouldering a tall wooden cross.

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A grandmother of one of the survivors wept as she described how she and others just want to move on and get away even for a day from the constant reminders of last week’s horror: the media, the well-intentioned outsiders, the victims’ families.

“It’s just too much for a little kid to have to go through,” said Betty Fraire, tears rolling down her face, referring to her 9-year-old grandson. “Us adults, too, we are trying to stay strong, for them, for our community, but it’s just too much.”

Her grandson, Jaydien — who is being identified only by his first name because he is a minor — said he survived the attack by hiding under a table. Now Jaydien, who has a mischievous smile and who used to love going to school and his math lessons, does not want to go to school anymore. He does not want to talk to the other children who survived either.

When he hears a loud bang, he gets anxious and scared and has not been able to sleep well, his grandmother said.

“We are just trying to get him busy and distracted, for him to forget the horror and be a happy kid again,” Fraire said.

At Country Gardens & Seed, three volunteers from San Antonio who had driven 80 miles to help shop owner Yolanda Moreno were busy shaping flower arrangements into white arched baskets for the funerals. They were out of baby’s breath, but on the floor around them were buckets of thousands of donated blooms — fragrant lilies, roses and carnations, blue delphinium, stalky allium and green bells of Ireland. Moreno’s husband, Johnny, 64, was in and out several times gathering bouquets for the delivery van.

Moreno, 62, showed off a heart-shaped arrangement for Rodriguez, the aspiring marine biologist, that a florist elsewhere in Texas sent, with a tiny fisherman’s net and small sea urchins tucked in among the flowers — a tribute to the career dream that the 10-year-old will now never make real.

All the arrangements for the funerals will be free, Moreno said, and she’s giving cash donations to the local library to buy books in the dead students’ names.

“That’s for the little boy, right?” asked volunteer Amanda Melton, 37, a San Antonio event planner, gesturing to one of the arrangements. “And what do you want it to say on the card?”

“Made with love,” Moreno said.

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Early Monday morning, a carpenter named Robert Ramirez, 47, made his daily pilgrimage to his father’s grave in Uvalde’s town cemetery, where the graves were studded with tiny American flags. Ramirez, who had his carpenter’s pencil tucked behind one ear, had brought his father two Miller Lite beers and set them atop his gravesite in honor of the day. The beers were still cold.

Ramirez said that many people in Uvalde are disappointed with and angry about the law enforcement response to the shooting, and that people in town want the officers who failed to stop him removed from their jobs.

“They gave the shooter 90 minutes to do as he pleased, and he killed all these little boys and girls,” Ramirez said. “It was so sad. They were just getting ready for summer. Two days.”

As he was visiting his father, Ramirez said he had got to thinking about all that dirt and grass in the cemetery’s back section, where many of the burials in the coming days will probably happen. They should bury all the victims there, he said, and construct a big memorial in their names.

“This is the perfect space,” he said, gesturing to the expanse of patchy grass. “They all died together; they should be together.”

Paulina Villegas in Uvalde contributed to this report.

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