May 4, 2011 / 2:06 AM / 9 years ago

After deadly twisters, towns cope with multiple funerals

COTTONDALE, Ala (Reuters) - Mourners gathered at a church on Tuesday to say goodbye to a victim of last week’s storms, another sad scene being repeated hundreds of times across the Southern states ravaged by deadly twisters.

A choir performs during a Sunday church service amid devastation, at the site of the Phil Campbell Church of God, destroyed in a deadly tornado April 27, in Phil Campbell, Alabama, May 1, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Celano

Judy Sherrill, 62, lived in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, the state’s hardest-hit area where officials said at least 39 people died in severe weather on April 27.

At her funeral at Fleetwood Baptist Church in Cottondale, mourners learned that relatives searching through the debris at her home found note cards with to-do lists written on the front and scripture on the back.

“She was a pearl as a church member,” said Pastor Rick Davis, who in his sermon told the mourners that God was in control and had not made a mistake.

“My friends, this didn’t take God by surprise at all,” he said. “I want you to understand the same God who has given has taken away.”

As state officials continue to count the dead, the recovery effort for friends and relatives must include the painful task of burying them. Nearly 350 people died in seven states last week, the second-highest recorded death toll from tornadoes in U.S. history.

Some people have insurance to cover funeral costs, while others have turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help, said Paul Rollins, Jr., a funeral director at Rollins Mortuary in Tuscaloosa.

The mortuary is directing four funerals this week, all for residents who died during the tornado.

“Even though I am a funeral director and grew up in the business, I don’t think anyone is prepared,” Rollins said. “We will keep each other in prayer and help each other. That’s all we can do.”

In Rainsville, a town of 5,000 in northeast Alabama, two small funeral homes struggled without power to accommodate the 14 tornado victims in their town.

“We used an inverter hooked to a car and left it running,” said Tom Wilson of W.T. Wilson Funeral Chapel, where the last of the victims will be remembered on Friday.

Gary Chandler, owner of the Rainsville Funeral Home, typically runs 15 funerals a month. With seven tornado victims and three natural deaths, he had nearly a month’s work in three days.

Volunteers helped answer the phones as the funeral home extended its operating hours.

“Some of the victims were good friends,” Chandler said. “One of the worst was a family of three, a husband, wife and his mother.”

In the tightknit town of Smithville, Mississippi, where 14 people died, employees at the Smithville Cemetery and E.E. Pickle Funeral Home also said they were busy with multiple funerals this week.

Helping families cope amid the devastation was their main focus, said funeral home spokeswoman Margaret Toss.

“It has been hard enough on them,” she said. “We are just trying to get through all of this.”

Additional reporting by Verna Gates and Leigh Coleman; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton

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