Donations of services, floral displays highlight the local response as 49 families say their goodbyes
Funerals for the 49 victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub are underway, and for those involved in helping families mourn the dead, the number of young lives lost has been overwhelming.
“I’ve been in the funeral business for 42 years, and in my 42 years in this industry we have never experienced anything else of this magnitude,” Bob Healy, funeral director of Funeria San Juan in Kissimmee, Florida, which worked with the families of six of the victims, tells PEOPLE.
“The numbers are daunting,” he says.
On Friday, his funeral home will hold a joint service for two victims, Luis Daniel Wilson and his boyfriend, Jean Carlos Mendez, whose families requested the memorials for each be held together after they died in the attack early Sunday morning at the upscale gay nightclub Pulse, now the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history.
Some families have asked that their services and pain be kept private, Healy says. “Other families have accepted the fact that they want the world to know.”
The sympathy of strangers was of great comfort to the grandmother of victim Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, who was flying to the funeral in Orlando and was comforted by the crew and passengers aboard a JetBlue flight, Luis’ sister Belinnette Ocasio-Capo, 22, tells PEOPLE.
“She was so thankful for the people who were flying with her – every single person in that airplane gave her their condolences,” Belinnette says. “She had people open up to her and cry; she was so hurt but she felt the love and that honestly made her happy that her baby was known worldwide like he always wanted to be. He would always say, ‘I’m a star! I’m a Hollywood star I will make it!'”
“Now he is known worldwide, but not the way we wanted him to be.”
At the packed service on Thursday for Kimberly “KJ” Morris, a bouncer at Pulse and a former college basketball player, her uncle, Bryant Johnson, recalled, “This past week we’ve been watching so many videos of our loved Kim and it just rings out in my mind as we are watching those videos, ‘Go Kim! Go Kim’ Go Kim!,’ and that was her personality: smiling, laughing, music, let’s dance,” reports NBC News.
A co-worker with Morris at the club that night, standing at the podium at the Osceola Memory Gardens Funeral Home where Morris’s white casket was on display, told mourners, “I want you guys to know the last time I saw her, she was smiling and laughing and enjoying life and she wants you all to continue to laugh and smile and enjoy life like she did.”
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WATCH: Faces of Orlando: Heartbreaking Stories of Lives Lost and Heroic Actions in the June 12 Attack
Moving Show of Support
Sally Kobylinksi, who along with her husband, John, owns In Bloom Florist in Orlando, about a mile from the club, tells PEOPLE the overwhelming emotions following the attack initially left her at a loss as to how to respond.
“Of course it’s our community; when you’re at ground zero, people have the desire to step up,” she says. “My great idea was from God.” The day after the early Sunday shooting, Kobylinski tapped her network of small floral businesses around the country to coordinate donations of flowers to victims’ families. “All of them within moments of reaching out emailed me back and said ‘yes.'”
So far, 48 florists from 35 states have embraced Kobylinski’s call to help with services or cash donations, involving memorial services that are taking shape as far away from Orlando as Tampa, Sarasota, South Carolina and Puerto Rico.
They have met specific requests when they were made: One family wanted to show solidarity with their lost loved one and received corsages in orange-and-green to honor the victim’s favorite University of Miami Hurricanes sports team. Another family asked to have the word “MOM” spelled out, which was done in feminine colors of pink and cream. “Every family has their own need,” Kobylinski says.
The florist is dealing with spokespeople or friends of the families, rather than the families directly, and confirming the details with funeral homes; because of concern about rumored protests, most funeral locations and times are not being made public in advance.
Healy noted the response from a local chapter of the motorcycle group Angel Riders for Justice, which contacted the funeral home to offer themselves as a protective barrier if needed, and the Human Chain Link for Pulse Funerals Facebook group counted nearly 30,000 members by Friday, two days after launching online to provide a similar service.
“We have been blessed that nothing like that has happened,” Healy says. “Everything here has just been so respectful and so appropriate.”
Offers of help also have come from other funeral homes in the area to share services such as limos for the families. From outside of the industry, Healy says that American Airlines has offered to fly victims back to Puerto Rico at no charge; churches have offered to cook and deliver food; and there have been offers to make commemorative blankets and memory books for victims’ families. “It’s been amazing,” Healy says.
He recalled that on the day after the shooting, as victims’ families first began to seek out preparations, “by mid-afternoon, there was over 100 people that had shown up here. I had to actually open up one of my chapels just so that people who were showing up to support the families of the victims would have a place to sit. And a lot of those people they were extended relationships, but once they knew they were here, they did not want them to be alone and they wanted them to see how many people were here to support them.”
“These were young people from their teens to their 30s, at the prime of their life, having the time of their life,” Healy says. “For them to be cut down in the middle of their lives with their future ahead of them, it just makes it that much more difficult.”
“It’s one thing to plan a funeral for somebody that’s lived a good, long life,” he says. “It’s much more difficult to plan a funeral for somebody whose life ended in the middle.”
Said Obama, “Our hearts are broken, too.”
With reporting by K.C. BAKER