It was an otherwise quiet weekend in Dayton, Ohio, when Todd Smedley caught a glance at Lois Oglesby’s Facebook page. Years before, he’d been in touch with the 27-year-old mother of two when she asked about a job opening at Smedley’s clothing company, T- Kings, which specializes in “Rest in Peace” T-shirts honoring those who die too soon.
Last Sunday, the posts on Oglesby’s Facebook feed turned dark, Smedley said, as family and friends began posting “RIP. ”
Within days of a mass shooting in Dayton that left nine dead, Smedley had his latest commission: a RIP T-shirt designed for Oglesby’s family. The final creation included three photos of Oglesby, a pair of wings, two doves, a staircase leading to heaven and, with a nod to her nickname, the words “We love you Nae Nae 4 Ever.”
Across the country, RIP shirts have become a somber material extension of the nation’s social epidemics: inner-city gun violence, mass shootings, drug overdoses. These custom shirts, once commonly thought as corporate swag or something you might get at the beach, have transformed into something much more resonant, say T-shirt makers and their customers.
The T-shirts give faces and names to victims whose deaths might otherwise slip into an anonymous pile of statistics. T-shirt makers say they get requests for all sorts of situations but that the T-shirts are most common in communities of color that face disproportionate levels of gun violence. Parents don the shirts at crime scenes and vigils. Friends frame the shirts to mount on their walls or fold them gently into drawers for safekeeping.
But this slice of the retail world is a complicated one. Some worry that the shirts profit off grief and death. But the designers also know that each shirt represents another life cut short – one that can’t be summarized on the front of a cotton T-shirt.
“Unfortunately, it’s a big business,” said LeAndrew Brown, a clothing designer in the Washington area who receives at least one RIP shirt order each day. “I get so many stories.”
Smedley founded T-Shirt Kings in Dayton in 2005, and markets his company as the world’s destination for RIP shirts. His website features dozens of designs with photos, angel wings and messages such as “Rest in heaven” and “My daddy was so amazing.” Smedley remembered one family that came in for a RIP shirt for their son – only to have the father shot at his son’s vigil.
“A lot of times, people put the ‘sunrise and sunset’ date on there and you start seeing it getting younger and younger,” Smedley said. “Now we’re edging into people who were born in the 2000s. It used to be people born in the 1990s.”
The shirts sometimes carry a stigma associated with gangs or the drug trade, O’Neill said, which can push sellers to operate underground. But Smedley said he sees his job as “speaking up for the good things” people did – not just focusing on the circumstances of their death.
He called the shirts “some type of therapy. “
“They were still loved,” Smedley said. “I just help families narrate that story. “