AURORA, Ill — Greg Zanis, the carpenter whose handmade crosses came to symbolize grief in the wake of tragedy, died Monday at age 69 after a year-long struggle with cancer.
The humble carpenter’s simple but sturdy crosses became iconic symbols of grief at locations of disasters and mass shootings, from Columbine in 1999 to his hometown of Aurora in 2019.
“I’m thinking of these individuals, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters,” Zanis said of his work. “They see what I’ve left as showing we’re all in this together.”
At each national tragedy, before there were grave sites or memorial services, there were Greg Zanis’ crosses.
Activist Matt Harrington was a close friend of Zanis who often stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him at non-violence rallies.
“He was a saint here, but he’s an angel there,” Harrington said. “The crosses said that ‘you’ll be remembered,’ and I hope people remember him.”
Zanis started building crosses after his father-in-law was murdered in 1996, and became known nationally when he arrived with them at Columbine High School in 1999.
After nearly every mass shooting that followed, Zanis would build crosses for the victims in his garage workshop in Aurora and drive however long it took to deliver them. Up until he retired last year, Zanis estimated he made more than 27,000 memorials through his organization Crosses for Losses.
In recent years, he turned his attention to the shameful violence plaguing Chicago. Zanis created neighborhood memorials, turned Grant Park into a symbolic cemetery, and in one of the most moving displays, helped organize a march down Michigan Avenue where victims’ families carried nearly 800 crosses in silence.
“The man kept on saying, ‘I can make crosses, but we have to change things,’” Harrington said.
When it was clear Zanis had just a few days to live his daughter organized a drive-by procession and living visitation on Friday. Neighbors and others stopped to thank him for his life’s work.
Greg Zanis died of complications related to bladder cancer Monday. He was 69.
In a statement, Aurora Mayor Richard C. Irvin called Zanis a “man of action” and “giant among men.”
“Heeding to the scripture ‘pick up your cross and follow me,’ Mr. Greg Zanis did just that. He picked up the crosses he made and followed his mission in the noblest of ways,” Irvin said.
Now without the carpenter, it’s up to all of us to build the better future his crosses symbolized.