T-shirts have been used to commemorate everything from rock concerts to company picnics. Usually, their seams fall apart or their print fades right around the time you no longer want to admit you’re old enough to have seen Talking Heads live or that you once thought wearing a picture of the Eiffel Tower was in any way sophisticated. And so, the shirt gets thrown in the trash or donated to the Salvation Army to make room in your overstuffed dresser.
But many people have a new kind of T-shirt in their drawer that they might be more reluctant to throw away: the memorial tee, worn by relatives or friends of someone whose life has come to a premature and violent end. The memorial T-shirt commemorates tragic deaths—suicides, murders, car accidents, terrorism. In other words, you aren’t likely to make a memorial T-shirt for your 97-year-old grandpa who passed away in his sleep, but you might have one printed for your young niece who was killed by a drunk driver.
The strange thing about the trend is that tees are the ultimate casual attire, made for spinning class, the mall, yard work, Disneyland—they’re not exactly considered appropriate funeral attire. At best, a T-shirt will hold up for a few years, whereas we usually think of memorials as being enduring. So, how did this trend begin? West Coast gangsters are believed to have started the memorial-tee trend in the early ‘90s as a way to remember slain gang members, most notable among them being rapper and movie actor Tupac Shakur. In the ‘90s, the practice of wearing the tees grew popular among urban minorities, especially teenagers. It is now so common that a friend of mine who works for the public school district in Oakland, Calif., where there were 117 murders last year, told me that students often say, “Don’t make me put your face on a T-shirt.” The Mountain View Funeral Home in Tacoma, Wash., notes that wearing a memorial T-shirt to a funeral, as teenagers often do, is an acceptable alternative to traditional expressions of grief and sympathy.
Sept. 11 was the “tipping point” that pushed memorial T-shirts into mainstream visual vernacular. In New York and Washington, D.C., people began wearing T-shirts memorializing slain friends, family members, police officers, and firefighters. In many ways, these standard memorial tees resembled the posters that were placed around New York City when friends and families were still searching for their loved ones. In the aftermath of 9/11, many people bought T-shirts featuring the popular “crying eagle,” the New York Fire Department logo, or the American flag, turning a once-ironic act into a demonstration of solidarity and mourning. (In 1968, when Abby Hoffman transformed an American flag into a shirt, he was arrested and tried for desecration. Today the Stars and Stripes are slapped onto everything from men’s boxer shorts to women’s string bikinis.) During the war in Iraq, the flag tee-as-memorial was adopted by the families of slain soldiers. When Army Spc. Larry K. Brown was killed in Iraq last April, his family (including his mother and father) wore T-shirts depicting Old Glory to the funeral.
The typical memorial T-shirt displays a homespun pixilated photograph of the deceased, the kind you might have put on a mug or a magnet when they were alive. Accompanying the image is often a message such as “You’ll be missed,” or simply the date of death. Friends of victims of the Chicago nightclub stampede, earlier this year, wore shirts bearing photographs with the words “In Loving Memory” and “The Good Die Young.” Nowadays, most custom T-shirt shops can cheaply print memorial tees. At $10 to $15 per shirt, or around $3.50 if ordered in bulk, they’re less expensive than a bouquet of lilies or many teddy bears, which may explain some of their appeal to teens. Fancier renditions of the memorial tee may use an illustration in addition to a photograph, such as those created for Brian Deneke, a punk who was murdered, or instead of a photograph, as was the case with tees for Brian E. Sweeney, a New York firefighter who died on Sept. 11.
In some cases, the T-shirt has a utilitarian secondary purpose. Web sites, like those for Sweeney and Deneke, sell the shirts in order to raise money for memorial funds. The funeral tee can communicate a political message, as is the case with services that customize SIDS shirts with the name and date of birth and death of your infant or those sold on the Matthew Shepard Foundation Web site. In other cases, memorial tees are explicitly intended to create a sense of solidarity among wearers, such as the “We are Columbine” tees that Columbine High School students wore when they returned to classes or those worn following the sudden death of pop singer Aaliyah, uniting strangers in grief in much the same way fans bond during a sporting event.
Still, the memorial tee raises an obvious question: What good is a memorial if it’s not lasting? For those of us who were raised believing that proper funeral attire consists of somber Sunday dress and that a proper memorial should outlast the life it represents, the notion of remembering somebody with a plain old T-shirt can seem downright disrespectful. But in many ways, the memorial tee is a modern iteration of the lost practice of wearing mourning clothes for days or years after a loved one has died. Long after the funeral suits and dresses have been returned to the closet, a T-shirt continues to show the world that grief and loss continue. Obviously a memorial T-shirt isn’t meant to replace the stone monument on a plot of green grass, the engraved urn, or scenic bench. It simply adds a new dimension to the traditional memorial. Like grief and life itself, it isn’t meant to last forever.