Hundreds bid farewell to beloved 4 children


Mourners gather around the burial site at Swift Creek Cemetery near Lake Butler on Monday for the funeral of Cynthia Mann, Elizabeth Mann, Heaven Mann, Johnny Mann.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2006 at 10:57 p.m.
The sobering image of four hearses outside the First Christian Church of Lake Butler Monday morning didn't quite prepare mourners for what they would see inside.
For some people filing through the front doors and into the sanctuary, the sight was jarring: four gold-trimmed, white caskets arrayed in an arc across the front of the room, all of them seemingly floating in a garden of floral displays and galleries of photos of the Mann children of Lake Butler - Cynthia Nicole "Nikki," 15; Elizabeth, 15; Johnny, 13; and Heaven, 3.
"I didn't even know the family, but it tore me up to see those caskets," Lori Sage of Worthington Springs said after the service. "Especially the tiny casket."
She and her 12-year-old daughter, Sierra Eades, were among more than 400 people who crowded into First Christian Church to bid farewell to four of the seven children killed Wednesday. They died when a tractor-trailer slammed into their car as they were stopped behind a school bus that had just unloaded some passengers.
Among the mourners were many students from Lake Butler Elementary School, Lake Butler Middle School and Union County High School, all of which had students killed or injured in the crash.
Monday was the first of four days of funerals this week related to the accident - including today's service for William Edwin Scott of Hawthorne, 70, the father of two of the mothers who lost their children. He died late Wednesday night after learning of the deaths of his grandchildren.
"We who are here today are going to go through days, and years, of difficulties," said the Rev. Scott Fisher, pastor of Lake Butler Church of Christ, who led the service with the Rev. Dr. Harold Hudson of First Christian Church. "But these children now reside in heaven."
Three of the children of Barbara and Terry Mann were adopted, and the couple was about to start adoption proceedings for their foster child, 20-month-old Anthony Lamb, who also was killed in the crash.
"Three of these children were chosen to be loved by this family," Fisher said. "They were accepted into this family for no other reason than Terry and Barbara chose to love them."
The service began with a pair of spirituals by a choir of some 40 children from the youth group of Fellowship Baptist Church in Raiford, where the Mann children were active members. Each singer carried a single flower. Some clung tightly to each other, some cried as they sang.
Some of the service's recorded music only intensified the sadness. Christian music singer/songwriter Steve Wariner's "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" spoke of loved ones peering down from heaven, keeping watchful eyes on those they loved and left.
A video slide show projected onto a wall of the sanctuary momentarily brought Nikki, Elizabeth, Johnny and Heaven to life. In the collage of photos of the children growing up, they laughed, played, lived.
As the slide presentation progressed, sniffles turned into sobs. By the time Heaven's bright face appeared on the wall, Barbara Mann and her sister, Amanda Scott - who lost her two children, Ashley Keen, 14, and Miranda Finn, 10, in the accident - were slumped over in their pew, wailing.
Sweeping like a wave over the congregation, their raw emotion seemed to express the inexpressible grief felt by every parent who ever lost a child.
Fisher sought to console, saying the four children being memorialized had overcome sorrow and pain when they "passed through the door of heaven into eternal joy."
"Our message is not to Nikki, or Elizabeth, or Johnny or Heaven," he said. "This message is for you. Jesus has received these children. What we see around us are symbols of memorial. They are in heaven.
"The message to you is, look to him for strength," he said. "Our community is strong. We will heal."
Outside the church, one mourner said, "These are our children. These are Lake Butler's children."
The service was followed by a milelong caravan from the church to Swift Creek Cemetery about seven miles away. Under an overcast sky, a chilly wind picked up as hundreds of mourners huddled around three green tents that sheltered the families and the four white caskets in front of them - laid side by side over their graves.
In a brief ceremony, Fisher spoke of the modest house in which the Mann family had hoped eventually to take in 10 children. "It wasn't the size of the house that made the room for these children," he said. "It was the size of their hearts that made the room. These children have moved out of a small house filled with love into a big house filled with much more love."
Several members of the family were given envelopes containing butterflies. They opened the envelopes as the country song "Butterfly Kisses" - about a father's love for the daughter he knows eventually he must give up - drifted out of a small music player.
People placed the butterflies on the palms of their hands, blowing on them to try to warm them enough to fly off. Minutes passed and only a couple of butterflies flew away.
"I think it's too cold," one funeral director said.
Soon, grieving family members took their butterflies and gently placed them on flowers in the bouquets atop each casket. There the butterflies stayed.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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