Flint, MI–Elvin Hollinger II is buried in Section 14, Lot 266, Grave #1 of Sunset Hills/River Rest Cemetery.
Because he has no gravestone, this is how visitors had to find him–section, lot, grave–until December, four months after his death.
That’s when his family made him a grave blanket, a bundle of evergreen branches and a large bow made of red and black ribbon. Its tail reads “DUBIE,” Elvin’s nickname, in gold letters that now gleam in the cold, February sunlight.
Elvin’s gravestone will read “February 21, 2002 – August 9, 2021” when it arrives, though when that will be is still in question.
Chereathe Hollinger, his mother, ordered it on Aug. 23, two days after his funeral. It was one of the many things she did to “keep busy” in the weeks following her son’s murder.
“I want it to say ‘In our hearts forever,'” she had told Martin Banks, the manager of Legacy Funeral Chapel, as she sat in his office on East Stewart Avenue. Banks nodded, his forehead bobbing in and out of view from behind a large black computer monitor.
He emailed her a receipt, “at cost plus installation fee,” and peeked out from behind the screen. He estimated the gravestone would arrive by late September or early October. He would send Chereathe the design proof in the next week or two.
At the time, Chereathe thought early October sounded so far off, long past the flood of media coverage for Elvin’s shooting and the park curfew in response to it, past the recent 24-hour ceasefire event and the summer’s many murders being called “senseless” by Flint’s preachers at Sunday service.
But now it’s February, and Elvin still has no gravestone. It’s one of the many things Chereathe and her family await in the long wake of Elvin’s death, another reminder, another task, another thing she needs but won’t bring her what she wants most.
“I will never have closure,” Chereathe said. “Because I don’t have my son.”
‘Until it happens to you’
Elvin was one of six teenagers shot in Broome Park on Aug. 9, 2021, and one of two who died in that shooting. He was one of 61 people who died of gun violence in Flint in 2021, and one of the more than 400 people who have died of gun violence in the city over the past 10 years.
But Elvin was not “one of” anything to those who loved him.
“You read this,” his father, Elvin Hollinger Sr., said two days after the shooting. “But you don’t feel it until it happens to you.”
Elvin was Chereathe and Elvin Sr.’s youngest son. He was a brother to his six siblings. He was responsible. He helped clean the house, and he was supposed to set up his parent’s new printer the week he was killed.
He was also engaged to his fiancée Madison Rupp, who still wears the ring he gave her.
“It’s our birthstones,” she said, months after his death. “That pink one is mine, and see here?”
She pulled the ring from her finger to show its inscription: “I love you.”
Madison had been one of the first to learn Elvin might be hurt. She had awoken before sunrise on Aug. 9 to dozens of messages from friends asking about Elvin and explaining in hurried thumb strokes that there had been a shooting at Broome Park.
She didn’t believe it could be true: she’d seen her fiancé only hours before. Still, she tried his cell as she drove over to the park to check if the police could tell her anything.
They wouldn’t. But she said she saw Elvin’s car behind the crime scene tape, so she asked one of his best friends to go wake up Chereathe and Elvin Sr. to tell them their son may have been shot.
Madison then drove from Broome Park to her former job at a Tim Horton’s on Miller Road, not wanting to believe the worst.
She was there when Cory, Elvin’s youngest sister, called to tell her Elvin had died that morning.
“I just screamed in the middle of the parking lot,” Madison said.
A name in the news
Three days after Elvin’s murder, Madison sat on folding chairs with Chereathe, Elvin Sr., Cory, and Cory’s son Chase in the family’s Mt. Morris driveway. The neighbor’s dog Rambo barked from behind a chain-link fence while they were interviewed by a local news station.
The family took turns talking about Elvin to the reporter sitting across from them, out of the camera’s frame.
He had a bright future, Chereathe said, and he had wanted to be a videogame designer one day.
Madison was holding Elvin’s picture on her lap. They were supposed to start at Mott Community College together after the summer was over—a summer he’d spent fixing up his 2003 Buick Park Avenue Ultra with every penny he saved from his job at a plastic fabrication company.
That company, Albar Industries, had sent a huge bouquet of flowers to the Hollingers after learning why Elvin hadn’t shown up to work. It sat on the dining room table next to a few others, wilting slightly in the late summer heat.
“I want to know why,” Cory told the next reporter, who sat down minutes after the television crew packed up their camera and microphones. “Or at least what actually happened. That would be a little ease on my heart.”
The news of Elvin’s murder had been so shocking and sudden that some newsrooms—and even the police—had misspelled his name as “Alvin” in early reports. The day’s second reporter asked what that felt like.
Chereathe said her family had been upset by the misprints but remained grateful for the attention on their loss and the ongoing investigation.
“Hopefully it will help somebody to come forward,” Chereathe said.
“I want people to get the message that it’s not okay to just shoot people,” added Elvin Sr.
The TV spot from the family’s first interview ran that evening. It got Elvin’s name right, but it misspelled Chereathe’s.
Because the coroner’s office had to file its report before releasing Elvin’s body, the first time his family got to see him was over a week after his death.
Legacy Funeral Chapel held a family-only viewing hour on Thursday, Aug. 19.
Two of Elvin’s four older brothers, Reggie and Antwan, had come in from out of state. Reggie hadn’t seen Elvin in years, and everyone remarked how much the two looked alike as they stood outside of the funeral home’s office.
Banks came out and greeted the group. He led them over to the viewing room and opened its wide wooden doors solemnly.
Chereathe had spent the early afternoon at The -N- Look Hair & Nail Studio where her cousin Davina Cohill worked. She had told Davina, her cousin, she wanted to “look her best” for her son, who preferred her hair a slight red—one of his favorite colors—and about shoulder length. She had gotten her makeup done, too, smiling at a reflection of neatly lined eyebrows and freshly glued eyelashes.
“I am beauty,” she sang jokingly, looking at Davina in the mirror. “Thank you, this made me feel better.”
But now, standing over her son’s body in the funeral home, Chereathe cried openly.
She leaned in toward Elvin, his black casket so shiny it could have been used as her mirror earlier. She stroked her son’s hair and touched his unmoving face.
“I love you so much,” she said. “You know that?”
Elvin Sr. put his arm around his wife when she stood upright, rubbing her shoulders as she quietly and sometimes loudly questioned the situation.
“It’s a bad joke,” she said. “Somebody’s punking me.”
Elvin Sr. said nothing as gospel music played from an old television in the corner of the room.
He walked Chereathe to her seat. She took a tissue someone offered her and, as she wiped her eyes, Elvin Sr. returned to his son’s casket.
Standing there, he seemed uncertain. Only the top half of the casket was open, its bright white interior embroidered with four doves and the words “Going Home” above Elvin’s head.
For a moment, Elvin Sr. looked as though he might reach for his son’s watch or tie, adjusting it like he would before sending Elvin off to a high school dance.
Instead, he continued to hold his hands in his pockets, his keys and loose change making a slight metallic clang as he fidgeted.
After a few minutes, Elvin Sr. sat back down next to Chereathe, moving the tissue she’d left sitting on his chair.
One of her eyelashes had come off in it.
Seeing the black strip, Elvin Sr. said, “It’s a roach!” as his eyes crinkled into a smile.
Everyone laughed. It was as if they had been waiting for his permission to acknowledge the discomfort and strangeness of sitting in a room with his dead son, who was also their brother and their friend.
“You almost had me running,” Chereathe chuckled, playfully hitting her husband’s arm.
The rest of the family viewing was spent much like that: laughing and swapping stories about Elvin’s past. Soon, the hour was over.
Banks told the family when they could come back for the standard viewing time the next day. He asked if they wanted anything about Elvin’s appearance changed ahead of then.
Chereathe requested that the funeral home put some chapstick on her son’s lips and wondered whether they could change his hairstyle.
As everyone followed her and Banks from the room, Elvin Sr. went over to the casket again.
He reached in and adjusted his son’s tie.
At the time of Elvin’s funeral on Aug. 21, a suspect had not yet been named.
There had been quiet speculation among acquaintances, though, murmurs of an intended target who had left the park before the shooting started.
Some ascribed the rumors to young people trying to make sense of a tragedy, but others were less willing to brush off the discussion.
“The kids know what’s going on,” Davina had said while combing through Chereathe’s red hair a few days before. “The streets solve murders.”
The rumors hovered in the background as hundreds of Elvin’s mourners filed into Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church for his funeral.
Choir members sang “you’ve been better than good to me” over and over while friends walked by Elvin’s casket.
Inside it, he wore a black suit with a red button up shirt and black tie.
Elvin Sr. had picked out his son’s outfit. He was wearing the same thing. He looked at Elvin from a seat at the end of a pew, holding Chereathe’s hand as the couple received condolences from attendees.
“The homegoing service of a 19-year-old young man makes no sense,” said Reverend Daniel Moore, looking at Elvin Sr., Chereathe, and the rest of Elvin’s family from behind a wooden podium on stage.
Shouts of “amen” came from the crowd.
Madison rested her head on Cory’s shoulder, careful to tuck herself under her would-be sister-in-law’s wide-brimmed black hat. Both were crying.
Reverend Moore encouraged the gathered mourners to consider offering their condolences not just today but months from today, when the family may really need them.
“Everybody can’t give remarks,” he said, scanning the audience. “But let me give you some instructions. February twenty-first, I want you to call them and give some remarks,” he gestured gently down at Chereathe and Elvin Sr.
“Their first birthday without him,” he explained. Elvin would have turned 20 years old.
“Christmas, call them with some remarks,” Moore continued. “Thanksgiving…”
In the front row, Chereathe nodded silently. Those dates were all so far away.
After the service, dozens of cars with small orange “FUNERAL” flags over their driver-side doors met at River Rest/Sunset Hills cemetery. There, the Hollinger family sat under a tent, shaded from the late August sun.
Reverend Moore said a few more words over a now-closed casket, and Chereathe and Elvin Sr. invited anyone interested to their house for repast—a large meal the family had prepared to thank everyone for their support.
The casket was not lowered. That would be done later, once everyone had left.
Elvin’s friends lingered after his family’s departure, each putting a hand atop the casket’s shiny black lid as if to include its occupant in their conversation. Though it was hot under the tent now, no one seemed to mind sweating as they cried and laughed, sharing stories about Elvin for another 20 minutes before falling silent.
When they finally went back to their cars, the orange “FUNERAL” flags were gone. They had been quietly removed by the funeral home manager, Martin Banks, and his attendants in black suits as they had stood around their friend’s grave.
“We don’t usually handle funerals for shooting victims,” Banks said days later. Elvin’s sister Janae works for Legacy Funeral Chapel, so Banks had made an exception for the Hollingers.
“Too chaotic,” he explained. “Funerals aren’t what they used to be 30, 40 years ago. There’s too much retaliation. There’s too much disrespect from people now. The value of a funeral has diminished.”
Asking for help
Whether a funeral’s sentimental value has diminished in the wake of Flint’s rise in violent crime, the hard cost hasn’t.
Elvin’s sister Cory had helped her mom set up a GoFundMe page days after his death.
“Hello, my name is NaCoryiez Hollinger and I am raising money to burry my [19-year-old] brother who was murdered at a gathering at broom park in flint Michigan,” it read. “He was so young and full of life, just graduated high school, and loved playing sports! He leaves behind a mother and father (Chereathe & Elvin Hollinger Sr.) 6 brothers and sisters and a host of nieces, nephews, and friends to cherish.”
The family asked for $8,000 and ended up with $8,391.
A final expense insurance company estimates a full-service burial—facility fees, embalming, viewing, hearse, and graveside service—can run between $5,000-$9,000 in Michigan.
“Keep in mind that the prices below don’t include the casket cost, flowers, headstone, etc,” its website reads in bold.
After the first few hours of Elvin’s viewing time on Friday, Aug. 20, a curious mourner asked why the Hollingers hadn’t requested more than $8,000.
“I’m not going to ask for more than I need,” Chereathe said.
Cory turned toward the questioner and added that they’d been surprised by the website taking roughly a quarter of the fundraiser’s total amount.
“People should know that they do that,” she said. “I was grieving. I didn’t read the fine print.”
Searching for justice
What exactly happened at Broome Park on Aug. 9, 2021 is still being decided in court.
There is a young man in custody, Breon Walters, himself only 18. He was arraigned on over a dozen felony charges, including two counts of first-degree murder, the same week Chereathe ordered her son’s gravestone.
Since then, she, Elvin Sr., and Madison have been taking turns going to preliminary hearings, part of a routine that keeps their loss fresh despite the months since Elvin’s death.
Sometimes they will show up together at the Genesee County Circuit Court. Chereathe and Madison usually wear t-shirts or red zip-up sweatshirts with Elvin’s picture. Elvin Sr. wears a baseball cap and chews a toothpick under a court-required face mask.
Each time, they sit quietly on rigid wooden benches, listening to the prosecutor and defense attorney discuss transcripts, motions, and a potential trial date. That date was originally set for Feb. 2, 2022, but that was changed last time they went to court.
“I can’t get 30 to 70 people in here,” Judge Behm said to Madison and Elvin Sr.—the only two people in the courtroom’s audience the afternoon of Jan. 18.
Because of the county’s recent rise in COVID cases Behm said she wasn’t certain when a trial date might be finalized, but the family is due back on Feb. 8 for another update.
Since burying Elvin, Elvin Sr. has gone back to his job, and Chereathe started a new one as business manager for a local school.
She’d been in semi-retirement when her son was shot in August, but with him gone, staying at home all day was too difficult.
“We still haven’t even cleaned out his room,” she explained over lunch at Los Cabos Grill, one of her favorite Mexican spots, in mid-January. “I keep his bedroom door closed.”
She said Elvin Sr. sometimes goes to the storage unit where they keep their son’s Buick, the one that had been held in police evidence after his shooting. They got it back in early fall.
“I think that’s my husband’s peace,” she said. “He works on it, he goes and drives it around. He goes to wash it—though he doesn’t do that now it’s winter.”
Chereathe said the couple will ultimately move somewhere else, but they aren’t sure where or when since Cory had her fourth baby last month.
“She looks like an old lady,” Chereathe laughs, pulling up a picture of her new granddaughter on her phone. Cory named her daughter ElvLynn for her late brother.
In the photo, “Baby E” has big eyes, a slight grimace, and adorable round cheeks.
“She’s our miracle baby,” Chereathe said, swiping to a video of Cory with all of her children, the eldest of which isn’t yet five years old.
Aside from helping care for the new baby and the rest of her nearby grandchildren, Chereathe says she’s also concerned moving might bring more pain.
“I still don’t have closure,” she said. “When we move—I don’t even know if I have closure then, because then I feel like I’m still leaving part of him at the house.”
Madison said she feels the same. Despite half a year without her fiancé, she sometimes goes into and out of present tense while talking about him.
“I’m mentally exhausted every single day,” she said of balancing her grief with trying to live as any other teenager might. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to act.”
Since she and Elvin were meant to start at Mott Community College together this past fall, Madison decided to postpone her undergraduate education after his shooting. She’s since gotten a new job in home healthcare and thinks she may eventually pursue becoming a traveling nurse.
“He was waiting for me to go,” she said of why she postponed going to MCC, her voice catching slightly. Madison was a grade below Elvin, she had only just held her graduation party about a month before his death.
“It’s not something you can ever prepare for,” she said. “It’s a pain you can’t describe, and it affects everyone differently. (Chereathe and Elvin) lost a son. I lost the person I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with, and Cory lost a brother.”
Madison keeps her composure in public, but she said she sometimes sits at home watching old videos of her and Elvin together.
“I have thousands of pictures and videos,” she said. “A lot of them have his voice in it, too. So I just sit there and look at it and cry. … That’s how I get through it. I know he’s there … not physically, but spiritually.”
Elvin Hollinger II is buried in Section 14, Lot 266, Grave #1 of Sunset Hills/River Rest Cemetery.
His family is still awaiting his gravestone, just as they await a trial date for his alleged murderer. They are hoping to learn the latter on Feb. 8, which will be almost six months to the day after Elvin’s death.
But they know these things—no matter when they happen—are just symbols of closure, a feeling they may never have. Their loss, like Elvin, “is forever in their hearts,” just like it’s forever in the hearts of hundreds of families in Flint, Michigan.
Elvin was one of six teenagers shot in Broome Park on Aug. 9, 2021.
He was one of two who died in that shooting, one of 61 people who died of gun violence in Flint in 2021, and one of the more than 400 people who have died of gun violence in the city over the past 10 years.
But to his family, fiancée, and friends, Elvin Hollinger II was not just “one of” anything.