Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Buffy Quintana is a sassy guy with long, reddish hair and a hula dancer figurine perched on the corner of his desk.
“That’s Lulu, my girlfriend,” he told me, teasing.
The buoyancy is impressive given Quintana’s task. The 52-year-old sews the interiors of caskets at Cardinal Casket Co. in Orlando. When I visited Thursday morning, the business had casket orders for 24 of the 49 victims of last weekend’s mass shooting at a gay bar here.
Quintana, who is gay and Puerto Rican, like several of those who died, knew five of the people killed in the shooting at Pulse nightclub. His boss says it’s likely he helped build some of their caskets this week.
“If I did, I don’t want to know,” Quintana told me. “I just do it with love.”
Quintana and others are putting some extra care into their craft this week. Kelly Greenwood, vice president and co-owner of the company, told me Cardinal Caskets shipped a green and orange casket for the funeral of a victim who was a fan of the University of Miami. Another was being fitted with a white interior and a military logo for a veteran who was shot and killed.
And then there was one for Greenwood’s friend, Frank Hernandez.
His family requested a Beyonce reference be added to the casket: “Always in formation.”
“He was a big Beyonce fan,” Greenwood said.
“I feel proud we’ve been able to do our part to help these families get closure,” Greenwood told me, noting that the company has been giving a 20% discount to funeral homes handling the shooting victims. “Closure is part of the healing process. The funeral, or the memorial, is very important (even if) … the wounds are always there.”
Greenwood has his own wounds, too.
“I was making a casket for a friend,” he said.
The first funerals for the victims of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history are starting to be held in this grieving city. And, when viewed in historical context, there’s something remarkable about the people who are helping facilitate them. A variety of funeral homes – not just those catering to the LGBT community or owned by them – are doing the work.
At least 13 funeral homes are involved, Greenwood said.
Twenty or 30 years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Back then, “gay funeral homes” would have handled most funerals for the LGBT community. Others would have shunned it.
In Orlando, the gay funeral home was owned by two men who now run Cardinal Casket.
“We were at the height of the AIDS epidemic at the time, and most of the funeral homes in Orlando didn’t want to deal with AIDS patients at all,” said Manny Adams, 65. “We took that gap, and we made that our focus.”
Adams and his business partner, James Cardinal, 54, ran a gay-friendly funeral home in Orlando in the early 1990s, they told me. They’re both openly gay. That made them sympathetic to LGBT people in need. Once they held two funerals for a drag queen, Cardinal told me: one with the deceased in drag, for the gay friends. Then another in men’s clothing, for the family.
“People didn’t have to sit down and explain their situation to us because we knew about it,” Adams said.
Adams told me that a few other funeral homes in Orlando did accept gay people or those with AIDS during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they often charged a $1,000 or $1,500 fee. Likewise, he said, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that local newspapers would print information about same-sex partners in obituaries. In that discriminatory environment, gay funeral homes such as his flourished. They had to do what it took to protect their own, and offer some compassion.
Greenwood told me that sort of focus is no longer needed – and that the casket company caters to everyone.
“There really isn’t such a thing” as a gay funeral home in 2016, he said. “Everyone’s welcome everywhere.”
That might be a rosier-than-true picture, especially given the massive hate crime this city is still flailing to process. But this history – the shift from exclusion to inclusion – is worth reflecting upon this week.
This is a city trying to figure out how to do right by its deceased.
One way to do that is to ensure that love and inclusion, not hate, continue to spread.
Another is to do the difficult work of folks like Quintana – sewing through the sorrow.