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July 25th, 2012
11:25 AM ET

Driven by personal tragedy, man builds crosses for Aurora victims, thousands of others

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - In a vacant lot across from the site of last week’s movie theater shooting, 12 white crosses stand solemnly, their arms covered in messages of hope and the ground around them full of flowers.

For the loved ones of the 12 killed in the Aurora, Colorado, theater, the crosses have become a focal point of remembrance, a place to memorialize victims and pray for their families and friends. But for the man who built the white crosses, each just over 3 feet tall, the crosses are something more: symbols of his own survival since tragedy struck his family 16 years ago.

Greg Zanis, an electrician from Aurora, Illinois, said he has built 13,000 crosses in that time, each a memorial for a victim of an American tragedy.

He traveled to Tucson, Arizona, after the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, ventured to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts after John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a 1999 plane crash there and went to Colorado after the Columbine school shooting that same year.

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Zanis, a former carpenter, usually spends four hours each Sunday building crosses and said he “can do them blindfolded.” Though he varies the cross design based on available lumber, he has a few basic styles, including a flat cross that can be attached to walls or fences and another one that can be staked into the ground at rural sites.

After the Aurora shooting, Zanis got calls from family members of Columbine victims who wanted to see how he was doing and thank him again for the crosses he built for them. It is those kinds of connections, Zanis said, that made him travel to Aurora last weekend.

“It is overwhelming to think about all the crosses I have put up,” Zanis said. “I am doing it for the victims, but this is a public grieving. This allows the public a place to go to and have that big cry.”

Readers weigh in: Where was God in Aurora?

Zanis’ voice cracked as he told CNN in a phone interview the stories of victims’ families he met in Aurora and described praying with the city’s mayor, Steve Hogan.

“I am having a hard time because I heard so many of these stories in person,” Zanis said from Illinois, where he returned after spending a few hours in Colorado over the weekend.

Zanis said he began building crosses in 1996 after discovering his father-in-law dead from a gunshot wound to his head. Zanis described the scene in his father-in-law’s office, where he found the body, as “gruesome” and difficult to discuss. The killer was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Zanis attended support group meetings to deal with the grief but said that none of them helped much. In an effort to cope, the lifelong Christian built a white cross and displayed it at his home as a permanent memorial to his father-in-law.

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Later that same year, a young boy was gunned down in Zanis' town. The victim’s mother asked Zanis to build her a white cross as a way for her to remember her son. He obliged and has been building crosses ever since.

After a local newspaper quoted Zanis saying he’d build a cross for anyone grieving from loss, he began getting weekly calls from around Illinois. Now he receives around three calls a day from people all over the country asking for crosses, many of them families with victims of gun violence.

But Zanis said he believes that shooting deaths are “not about the gun” - he carries one with him at times. “I don’t think I am going to go murder somebody,” he said. “We need to be able to defend ourselves.”

Zanis doesn’t charge for the crosses and said he doesn’t accept donations for them. When he has the opportunity to deliver the crosses, he said he looks for a chance to talk and pray with families.

“When I talk to a family member, I talk to them differently than other people would - I share my loss and that just opens them up to sharing their loss,” Zanis said. “This is a perfect thing for me to do.”

And for those who want to stay in touch, he said he is happy to be someone who will listen.

“I tell them that I am going to answer the phone even at night. I am going to be there for you, and while I won’t always have the best answer for you, I will tell you that you are going to see them again in heaven,” Zanis said. “It isn’t final yet, I will say, and people relate to that.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Christianity • Colorado • Violence

soundoff (752 Responses)
  1. Josh

    Wasn't he the one who also put up 2 crosses at Columbine, for the two students "preps", because their parents too were grieving the loss of their sons. And he was attacked in the press for it?

    July 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Scott

      Yes, the same gent.

      Scott

      July 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Reason

      yep – same guy. Wanting children to learn more about God in public schools he said.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • just sayin

      Reason

      yep – same guy. Wanting children to learn more about God in public schools he said.

      ------

      If this is true then it is quite revealing...he is no different than the Phelps guys using the dead to prop his issues up. He is a POS in the true sense

      July 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  2. tony

    We should have circles on gravestones. Symbolizing the cycle of life and being replaced in turn by our children.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  3. IslandAtheist

    Religion thrives off suffering.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • ac26

      If you are against religion why did you read this article?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • IslandAtheist

      I'm against lots of things I read.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  4. Frank Lee

    I keep trying to do my best to blur my eyes and see this display as being a comfort to the families of the individual victims; but really, overall, it looks like a trash dump. Sorry.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • junior

      Don't apologize for your vision.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • What

      Right on the money

      July 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  5. ObamaJoe

    superficial ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,but,,,,,,,,,,,it's OK,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    July 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  6. tony

    Lots of unneeded help for the dead, while the tragically sick and poor get no help because that might involve "tax dollars".

    July 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  7. bt man

    indeed. nothing like the symbol of where some prophet-of-yore was slaughtered to ease the pain.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • junior

      Christianity is so much more than what you seem to endorse it to be.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  8. james

    wow, people will hate on anything..

    July 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      I hate when people say that

      July 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Romans 1:17-32

      Amen.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • What

      Religion is sick

      July 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • just sayin

      Romans 1:17-32

      Any man who gets on his knees and mouth open for the Lord will walk through the gates of heaven.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • junior

      I don't fear death in sacrificing my life for another. That is where we differ Just Sayin. You would conclude it to be stupidity.

      July 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  9. just sayin

    Greg Zanis is a selfish, offensive little man. His acts are to feed his needs and has nothing to do with the victims. Bravo you bas a rd!

    July 25, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • ANGERED

      I think the only selfish person is one who takes the light out of a story for a man doing something for others and tries to focus it in a negative light with an insensitive comment such as yours. This man is doing families grieving something out of the goodness of his heart, what have you done? Exactly! Nobody wants to hear your insensitive,worthless comments.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • junior

      Yet he doesn't fear you or those like you that reject him publicly let alone anonymously such as is the case right now.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • just sayin

      If a Satanist offered his symbols as "props" out of the goodness of his heart, would people be offended. This man's intentions is not goodness rather his own selfish needs and issues he has not resolved.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Big D

      Ya, how selfish to build all those crosses and travel around the country without taking a dime of anyone's money. It's all just political grandstanding during election years I'm sure and nothing to do with helping grieving family members left behind. How dare you do such a thing.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • ANGERED

      Why don't you get back to worshiping Satan than "just sayin" and keep your dark comments off of this story. This story is sharing something positive that someone is trying to do and all you do is bring negativity to the scene. Do everyone on this story a favor and get back to your devil-worshiping activities.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Brian

      I can't believe some of the things I am reading. Here is a guy doing a act, trying to be a good human being and being critized. The harsh talk needs to pointed in a different direction. Acts of helping people grieve, to help bring people together and to bring awareness with the best of intentions (whether you agree with them or not) should be commended. Fundamentially an example of where our thinking is wrong in this country. Agree to disagree and leave it at that...don't shout your disagreement by calling the guy something.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • junior

      If a Satanist offered his symbols as "props" out of the goodness of his heart, would people be offended.

      Then he would not be a satanist if he is mourning the dead.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • ac26

      What is wrong with you? The article clearly states that he receives calls for the crosses. Can you not read with comprehension? It also states that he speaks with the families of the victims so apparently they want the crosses. Believe it or not most Americans identify themselves as Christians. And I am sure they are OK with crosses....Stop making this about your personal issue with religion or Christianity in particular. And I don't see how you can call him selfish when obviously what he is doing is SELF-LESS....Get a grip go trash talk somewhere else, all of you.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Reason

      If you people didnt learn the truth what this guy was really about during all the Columbine stuff – then we cant help you.

      Stay living in your fantasy.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • What

      Totally agree

      July 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Reason

      AC26 – he didnt speak with the families in Columbine – he caused a lot of distress and controversy after that whole mess – and he clearly was trying to push Christianity – saying he thought it should be taught more in schools.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • just sayin

      AC26 – he didnt speak with the families in Columbine – he caused a lot of distress and controversy after that whole mess – and he clearly was trying to push Christianity – saying he thought it should be taught more in schools.

      He is no different than Phelps propping up the dead for his own agenda.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • mkrueger

      all you people want your freedoms..freedom of religion, freedom and right to bear arms, etc...this guy did something for all these victims..spent his time and money and is down there doing....why do any of you care what religion this guy is..it is his freedom right?..you want your freedoms too right?..if you dont like the memorial that is there dont go to it..simple as that..same as anything else..dont like it dont participate..but regardless..this is an act of kindness and helping others..this man is not doing anything to hurt other people..you may not agree with his religious beliefs but that is your choice..not everyone will agree with yours either..that is the great thing about freedom right? what i do know for certain is that this man is down there doing which is more than most all of you including myself can say...

      July 25, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • just sayin

      junior

      If a Satanist offered his symbols as "props" out of the goodness of his heart, would people be offended.

      Then he would not be a satanist if he is mourning the dead.

      -

      Your assumption doesnt address my question. What if a Satanist erected his symbols for the victims and he said his intentions were good? We ahve symbols being erected for good intentions. Really focus and think about my question.

      People should not be offended if the intentions are good?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • junior

      A satanist out of the goodness of his heart. Who believes in unicorns now?

      July 25, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Depends on the type of Satanist.

      July 25, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • Maria

      How is spending his own time and especially his own selfish? I do not understand why you would say that about my dad? What has he done to hurt you? Or do you just have hate in your heart?

      July 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  10. Fan of Helping

    First and foremost, I would like to applaud Mr. Zanis for his giving spirit and deeds. The one question I would ask him though is: Do you build something for those of other faiths? Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheists, etc.? His actions are very good, but I think he would be great if he included other faiths – and those of no faith.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • JCMars

      Why does he need to subordinate his faith to others? Why doesn't someone from these other faiths step up or for that matter why don't you? You've identified the need, now fill it.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • junior

      well said JCMars

      July 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Pat

      Some of the comments here are shocking and a good reflection of what has gone wrong in America. Funny how over the past few days everyone has been talking about praying for the families and victims. Where were all the Atheists then with their BS???? You Atheists are helping to destroy this country little by little. Atheists are just as sick as the shooter. You should be very proud of yourselves.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Carolina

      Much Agree here! What if the victims are Jewish....my mother would be quite insulted. The good intention is definitely there but exclusive to a particular religion...don't like that. Flowers are more appropriate.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      Pat
      you are now trying to blame all of this on atheist? You do not have any facts to base this on and if you look at actual facts (like countries have more atheists per capita) you will find them to be more peaceful societies than any religious societies. Your bigotry is showing christian.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • junior

      THen the Jewish community can also render their respects, as would other creeds, but it was the Christian who did, don't blame him.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Who? God's wrath is upon us because of you non-believers.

      Romans 1:17-32

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Reason

      Pat – you are an idiot. Blaming this on Atheists? Saying someone who chooses to not believe in fairy tales are ruining the country?

      wow.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • What

      Religion is sick they are all for themself, They hate other faith, and claim one religion better than other. Sick Sico guy

      July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • just sayin

      junior

      THen the Jewish community can also render their respects, as would other creeds, but it was the Christian who did, don't blame him
      .
      Of course blame the christian or person erecting offensive symbols. This guy is a selfish ba s tard with his own agenda.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • junior

      Your arrogance qualifies you to be clairvoyant too. Boy we are in for a treat if we continue digesting your remarks.

      July 25, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  11. ArthurP

    This act was a sign from God to the people of the United States to stop corrupting his message with Fundamentalist dogma.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • sybaris

      Wanna buy some pet rocks?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  12. James

    I really hope all of the victims were christian, or else he is not honoring them. Who is he to believe that his faith, and the symbols of it, stand above all others. It is a nice gesture, but honestly, it is a slap in the face to people of different faiths who have died in tragedies.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • just sayin

      Yep we can call him a selfish ba s tard.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Thackerie

      I agree with you 100%. It's an insult to the victims and their families who have other religions or none at all. He should have done some research into the background of each of the 12 who were murdered rather than treating them as generic christian props. That he didn't bother leads me to believe that he is just pimping his own religion, using a tragedy as a convenient backdrop.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • junior

      No it isn't. He is rendering respect for the dead, even if they didn't share his beliefs. It shows his love for humanity, regardless of what walk of life each person may have taken up to this point.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • What

      I am dead and need help to get up to kick this guy ass, I don't like cross. Put american flag on me please

      July 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Who invited me?

    The guys that made the actual crosses that were used to crucify people, were they doing a good act too?

    July 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Big D

      You mean like all the people who build crosses for churches all over the world? You should gain a grasp of the meaning of the cross then speak and not be so ignorant.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      I am not ignorant...the cross was used as a torture device. My question is valid.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  14. Andrea

    What if the victim is not Christian? I admire him for honoring the victims, but for those who are not Christian, such a marker may in fact be offensive or increase the hurt for the victim's family, as their beliefs are not recognized or denied. His acts are really a reflection of his needs, rather than the victims' or their families'.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • just sayin

      If I was one of the victims I would hope one of my family members would tear down one of the crosses. This guy is completely offensive and is working out his "own" issues. He could give 2 craps about the victims. He is acting selfish and careless. Hopefully somebody tears these down.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  15. Topher

    Good morning. If you have a theological question about Christianity you'd like to discuss, let's talk ...

    July 25, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      And the troll throws out the bait...let's see what he catches this time!!!

      July 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • just sayin

      Topher the Atheist Troll, how ya do in bro?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Topher

      Hey, Who Invited Me? and Just Sayin' ... How are you?

      Can I ask you a question? Do either of you know what the Gospel is? What it says?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • just sayin

      Haven't made it to the point where the Gospel is meaningful or relevant. Without the OT the Gospel is quite irrelevant. It is about as relevant in my life about as much as Harry Potter is.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      Yes topher
      I know what the God Spell is and what it says.
      It is the work of men who were ignorant, and superst i tious people.
      Do you?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Topher

      just sayin

      You don't have to know the OT to appreciate the Gospel. It helps, but it is not necessary. So is that a 'no'?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Topher

      Who invited me?

      Pretend I don't. What does it say?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • just sayin

      Topher

      just sayin

      You don't have to know the OT to appreciate the Gospel. It helps, but it is not necessary. So is that a 'no'?

      .
      There is a difference in believing and appreciating. We can all appreciate words of wisdom. In order to "believe" that your Christ is the Son of God, you need the OT. Without the OT your Christ is just another man offering words of wisdom that was delusional at times.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • just sayin

      We don't have to rehash the OT again and we are quite clear on your view of physical evidence contrary to your OT.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Topher

      "There is a difference in believing and appreciating. We can all appreciate words of wisdom. In order to "believe" that your Christ is the Son of God, you need the OT. Without the OT your Christ is just another man offering words of wisdom that was delusional at times."

      You don't need to know the OT to believe Christ is Lord, though that certainly supports the case. He said He was God and proved that fact. What did Christ say that was delusional?

      July 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Topher

      What physical evidence is contrary to the OT?

      July 25, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      topher
      I don't have to pretend you don't.
      I have long since given up with your rediculous non-questions and non-answers.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  16. Vincent

    Hes a good man.

    He doesnt charge for them or accept donations? If hes going to be sending them across the country, he may need a little help.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • just sayin

      He is not a good man. He is using trajedy of others to work through his own selfish needs. He is careless is simply rude.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • just sayin

      What if there was a satanist going around erecting his own religious symbols in the name of the victims? How would the Christians feel? This guys is nothign more than a insensative b a st ard.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  17. Doc Vestibule

    Perhaps the most humbling experience I've ever had was standing in the fields of Verdun, surrouded by nameless white crosses as far as they eye could see.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Who invited me?

      and at Arlington
      Not for the symbols intended but I saw them just as symbols of life wasted.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  18. Rick

    I can definitely understand remembering the dead and I do appreciate the sentiment and effort to put into it.

    What I can't understand is why this kind of action isn't considered controversial when Mormons baptising the dead are... Do we know for a fact that each of the shooting victims was a Christian?

    July 25, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • HeavenSent

      If they weren't in life, they are now.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • QS

      That's what I was thinking. As you said, I understand the sentiment, but too often people simply make assumptions based on the perception that so many of us in this country are Christian that it just doesn't occur to them.

      I loved the speech Pat Tillman's brother gave at his memorial service for that very reason. He called people out for suggesting that Pat was "in heaven" when he was an Atheist.

      I get that people are grieving and that people do so in different ways, but I do agree with your comment in general.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      heavenspent
      you contradict yourself
      If they weren't christians in life, then they are burning in your cruel gods eternal lake of fire for choosing the wrong belief.
      Silly troll

      July 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Rick

      Unfortunately, It took a long long time before anything other than crosses and Stars of David were seen in American cemeteries.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Who invited me? I didn't contradict myself. You don't know how to read or hear scriptures because you never got started to learn.

      They are all back with the Lord, who made all. Judgment Day hasn't come until after the day of the Lord. There are only certain people throughout history that are tormented in hell today. To find out, read the Bible.

      July 26, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  19. Gus Allen

    We need more folks like this gentleman.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Thackerie

      Why? How could having more fundigelicals using tragedies to pimp their religion make the world even a tiny bit better?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • just sayin

      Yes we need more offensive and insensative people like him. We can only pray that somebody tears the crosses down

      July 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • spike

      Littering the landscape with horrid religious symbols? A selfish act of a diseased mind.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  20. junior

    AMEN

    July 25, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • TRinPA

      How couldn't the world be a better place with more people like him?

      July 25, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • just sayin

      He makes symbols of a failure of a god. God watches the victims with a smile.

      July 25, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • junior

      On the contrary, the cross before our Lord's death symbolized FEAR, now it is the symbol that we do not fear carrying the cross and that we do not fear death.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • just sayin

      junior

      On the contrary, the cross before our Lord's death symbolized FEAR, now it is the symbol that we do not fear carrying the cross and that we do not fear death.

      .
      I don't fear death...so apparently you did at one time and need the cross to not fear it. You became a Christian out of fear...that is quite clear.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.