“I didn’t want people to throw this away, like they threw him away,” she said.
Malachi was burned in a bath and left untreated for nine days before dying in his bed, according to charging documents. His body was found in a dumpster more than 10 miles from home. His mother, Alicia Lawson, and her wife, Shatika Lawson, have been charged with several crimes including involuntary manslaughter and child abuse.
“He had so much courage to even survive all that time,” O’Neal, 46, said of Malachi. “I couldn’t help him that day, but I could let him know he was appreciated.”
At her business, Memorial Programs by Shawnie O. in Franklin Square, the programs don’t resemble the templates at most funeral homes. The deceased are depicted on red carpets, surrounded by stars, nestled among twinkling diamonds, or ensconced among pink roses and doves. The custom designs are aimed at creating a lasting memory of the deceased and helping grieving families, O’Neal said.
Personalized funeral touches are a nationwide trend, according to Jack Mitchell, secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association. The Baltimore funeral home owner said the development began with baby boomers and has expanded with millennials.
“We’ve been seeing a trend of defying what we term as the traditional funeral,” Mitchell said. “People want to make it something that’s going to be more personal.”
With interest in social media and snapping photos continuing to grow, it’s no surprise to Mitchell that families are using O’Neal’s services.
O’Neal estimates that most programs she creates honor homicide victims — often young men. Baltimore’s annual homicide count hasn’t dropped below 300 since 2015. The city has already surpassed 215 victims this year.
“It’s imperative that people’s last thing on Earth be memorable,” O’Neal said. “And that’s what we’re here to do. I want you to dig into a program like it’s a New York Times bestseller.”
For Malachi’s program, O’Neal’s vision was a comic book, so mourners could remember the child as powerful and heroic.
Malachi’s relatives let O’Neal almost single-handedly design the program, which took eight hours to create and six more to laminate. The more than 100 mourners at the funeral Aug. 13 received a colorful, six-page booklet splashed with photo collages of Malachi, an obituary in “his” words, and comforting lines like “remember an angel never dies” and “heaven is cool.”
It included photos of the boy with Alicia and Shatika Lawson, accused in his death. A quotation was attributed to them — taken from a poem O’Neal found that was suggested for children’s funerals.
Malachi’s relatives provided the photographs. O’Neal said she didn’t feel it was her place to exclude Alicia and Shatika.
A member of Malachi’s extended family did not immediately respond to a request for comment last week.
In other instances, the bereaved are more specific about what they’d like to see. Regardless, customers always see and approve the final creation before it’s printed, O’Neal said.
Nearly 20 years ago, O’Neal was a Baltimore City schoolteacher when her oldest son started playing basketball. She couldn’t stand the uniforms, and her son’s coach challenged her to improve them. She did — and in the process began to find herself.
The Coppin State graduate quit teaching and started her own business full-time in 2004. Originally, she focused on T-shirts. But after she created a funeral program for her grandmother — depicted among flowers — she changed direction.
Since then, she’s made thousands of programs. Some showcase photos of the recently deceased on replica covers of a Ravens football program, or Essence, GQ or PlayStation magazines.
O’Neal has three employees. Typically, they’ll meet with loved ones, learn about the deceased and gather photos. O’Neal analyzes images and contemplates who the person was. How did they pose? Was there a pattern to what they wore?
While a colleague works on collages and inside pages, O’Neal focuses on the front and back covers. As she searches for the perfect font, her Shih Tzu, August, sits at her feet.
The Sade station on Pandora radio gets O’Neal in the zone. On really hard days, when the grieving families and Baltimore’s violence can’t escape her thoughts, she listens to gospel.
“Sometimes, I just need to know it’s going to be okay,” she said.
For Malachi’s program, she said, she worked in silence.
Though O’Neal partners with some funeral homes, most of her business is word of mouth.
Rosalind Jones heard about O’Neal in 2012 and asked her to create a program for her father’s funeral. Since then, Jones has enlisted O’Neal for four more funeral programs, graduation announcements and party decorations.
“You never get the same thing,” Jones said. “It’s something that fits the circumstances and fits the person. And it’s something that you’ll always remember.”
Jones, a lifelong West Baltimore resident, has become a friend.
A mother of two sons, 17 and 28, O’Neal can’t help but dwell on Baltimore’s violence. Sometimes, in her dreams, she envisions losing them.
“I know the death rate has increased because I don’t get my days off,” she said. Her business averages about 45 programs a month, O’Neal said.
O’Neal’s aunt, Serrina Boone, works with her niece and can remember more than once dropping off programs at 1 or 2 in the morning.
“We honor their needs and make sure they’re fulfilled,” Boone said about the business. “The need is there, and we picked up on that need.”
Recently, O’Neal invested in a van for Memorial Programs by Shawnie O. If a family member can’t get downtown for a consultation, her team can still provide services.
“You have to meet people where they are,” she said. “It’s hard to put a price tag on death. But I have the spirit for this.”