Marine Cpl. Shane Kielion, 23, died in Fallujah last Nov. 15--hours after his wife gave birth to their first son. At a graveside service in Omaha, Neb., nine days later, mourners gathered around Kielion's burial vault to admire images adorning the lid: the statue of Saddam Hussein toppling, tanks storming the desert, an Iraqi girl waving an American flag.
Customizing burial vaults, the boxes that protect a casket after interment, has become a popular way to pay tribute to fallen veterans. Ray Simon of Youngstown, Ohio, began designing images two years ago and has since completed more than 500 orders. "Memorials are no longer just for presidents. They are being presented to your hometown heroes," says Simon, whose paintings honor vets of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, and firefighters and police who lost their lives on 9/11. The original paintings are made into prints, affixed to a thin layer of transparent vinyl and attached to the vaults. Because the images are buried along with the deceased, Simon sends families 16-by- 20-inch replicas. Good thing. Roger Kielion, Shane's father, says, "It's a shame they had to cover it up."