After Cpl. Jesus A. Gonzalez was buried, an elegant framed portrait of the Marine, proudly wearing his white uniform, arrived at the home of his grieving mother in Indio, Calif.
"I cried because I was looking at my son, and it was as if I had him alive in front of me," Silvia Berrones said, recalling the moment she unwrapped the portrait of her son, who was killed at the start of the war in Iraq. "The emotion I felt -- I wanted to meet the person who made the painting to kiss his hands."
That person is Carlos Jones, 44, a Navy veteran and artist from Middleton, Ohio. He has never met Berrones and never knew Gonzalez. But Jones has made it his mission to make portraits of every serviceman and woman killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- already more than 800 -- and give them to their families.
The 23-by-26-inch portraits, enlargements of photographs transferred to canvas, feature the slain soldier, the American flag, a bald eagle and a poem by Jones titled, "The Fallen." So far, almost 300 grieving families across the United States have received the portraits.
Jones, who creates digital portraits professionally, is not the only one who has taken it upon himself to honor the fallen through his craft. As the United States debates how to best honor the dead -- whether it is appropriate, for example, to publish photographs of coffins -- at least eight groups of volunteers or individuals are remembering the dead with the work of their hands, toiling around their kitchen tables or workshops. They are stitching quilts, building wooden flag cases, sewing blankets or creating other keepsakes for the families of the dead.
"I think it's necessary to let the families know that we are aware that someone in their family has died for their country," said Paul Stern, a West Virginia machinist who is hand-crafting triangular wooden cases so families can display the American flags that draped the coffins of their sons or daughters.
Working from his shop in tiny Cameron, the Air Force veteran has made 89 cases and is preparing 33 more for families who have agreed to accept his gift.
Across the country, a couple of hundred quilters are stitching Marine Comfort Quilts for casualties from all the military branches.
Volunteers in different states make the squares and send them to a team leader, who assembles the squares into the final quilt. The quilt is sent to the group's coordinator in St. Louis -- Jan Lang, the mother of a Marine who survived the deadly battle in Nasiriyah last year -- who ships them to families of the slain.
The group has delivered 164 quilts (and is working on dozens more) which typically include the serviceman's or woman's name, branch and rank as well as personal messages from the volunteer quilters.
"We are forever in your debt," reads one message on the quilt the group gave to Ginger Ford, sister of Cpl. Patrick Nixon, who was killed in the battle for Nasiriyah.
In Hudson, Fla., Jessica Porter, 20, coordinates dozens of quilters who are part of Operation Homefront Quilts. The group has delivered 280 quilts and just finished 100 more that soon will be shipped.
At the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Elaine Valentin and other military wives have revived a tradition, started in World War I, with Operation Gold Star Flag. Families with relatives in the service displayed in their windows flags with a blue star in the middle. If the serviceman was killed, the star was changed to gold. Valentin's group has given 85 flags to the families of dead soldiers.
In Murrietta, Ga., Marleen Manley coordinates volunteers who make up Project Linus. The group has delivered 287 quilted, crocheted or knitted baby blankets for the children of fallen military men and women.
And in Wilmington, Ohio, factory worker Michael Earley is crafting commemorative knives. He calls them 17 Souls Knives -- one for each Marine who died in the Nov. 2, 2003, Chinook helicopter crash in Fallujah. The first one honors his own son, Sgt. Steven Daniel Conover.
Earley, who has long crafted custom knives as a part-time business, has finished nine, and when he completes the set, he plans to give them to the families of the other Marines who died.
The 12-inch knives have white handles, to symbolize heaven. Earley decided to honor the dead by using his "God-given talent" of hand-making knives, particularly because his son, who always encouraged Earley's craft, died carrying one of the knives his father had made for him.
"It's hard when I make these knives because of why I'm making them, but I know I have to," said Earley, 41. "I had to stop a few times while I was making this knife and sit back and collect my tears. It's part of my healing process."
As the conflict lingers and the names of new soldiers are added to the tally of the dead, the artisans vow to keep crafting their gifts.
Some of the projects date to some of the first casualties in the war on terrorism. Stern, a soft-spoken and religious man, was moved to make his first flag case when he heard a radio report about the death of Air Force Master Sgt. Evander E. Andrews of Maine. Andrews, 36, was killed in Qatar in a heavy-equipment accident a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Jones was moved to start making his photo montages when his home state of Ohio lost its first native son in the war with Iraq. Pfc. Christian Daniel Gurtner of Ohio City was 19 when he died in battle April 2, 2003. "When you're sitting on a couch and someone is fighting for our freedom, it makes you feel completely helpless," Jones said. "When I gave the parents the portrait, it was overwhelming. They just loved it. With that response, I thought I'd try some more."
In Indio, Berrones placed the portrait of Gonzalez, 22, in his old bedroom, where she built a memorial for him.
"The painting was so well done that it seemed that my son wanted to talk to me," Berrones said.
Some families meet the volunteers' offers with caution.
"At first I was concerned, someone trying to get recognized at our expense," said Janet Egnor, widow of Army Chief Warrant Officer Jody Egnor, who was killed in an aircraft crash in the Philippines on Feb. 21, 2002.
In time, she accepted a flag case from Stern and a flag from Valentin's group. Stern, she said, "came across as a very caring and loving individual who wanted to help us widows."
In White House, Tenn., Ginger Ford keeps the red-white-and-blue quilt she received from Marine Comfort Quilts in a chest where she holds mementos of her brother, Cpl. Nixon, 21. He died with 17 other Marines from Charlie Company in the battle of Nasiriyah.
When she finds herself missing him, Ford wraps herself in the quilt and weeps. "It's called a 'comfort quilt,' and that's exactly what it is," said Ford, 29. "It has so much love from so many different people who never even met my brother but still loved him."
Such sentiments keep the volunteers going, and they cherish the letters and e-mails of thanks they receive.
"Your friends and family are there," said Laurie Oaks, mother of Army Spec. Donald Oaks, 20, of Harborcreek, Pa., who was killed by "friendly fire" south of Baghdad on April 3, 2003. "But when you receive good deeds from people you don't even know, it really upholds your belief in the American people, and it makes you feel like you're not alone."