They gathered to celebrate life, not to dwell on death. So they talked about memories of a 9-year-old girl with an easy smile, a mischievous laugh and the talent of making herself unforgettable.
They did not want to mark her passing with talk of the kind of unfathomable evil that would have taken third-grader Felecia Williams from her family.
So on Saturday, they tempered tears with happy memories of a girl whose family called her Sugar Plum.
Several hundred people attended Felecia's memorial service at the Rock Church of God by Faith on E Henry Avenue, packing the church to overflowing a week after the Tampa girl's body was found amid rocks and mangroves near the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Clearwater.
Felecia seemingly vanished from Doral Oaks Apartments in Temple Terrace, where she had been taken by a family friend on May 16. Police have named Granville Ashanti Ritchie, 35, as a suspect in her death. Ritchie has not been charged in the slaying, but he is jailed in Pinellas County on unrelated drug and sex charges.
Police have not said how Felecia was killed.
The case has drawn intense public attention. TV news crews lined up outside the church. The family opened the funeral to the public, though they asked that reporters not record the memorial service or take notes inside the church.
Felecia's flower-laden casket arrived at the church on a white funeral carriage drawn by a single horse. Family, friends and even strangers followed the casket into the church as someone recited Psalm 23.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."
"I can understand the pain of the family," Pastor Andrew Holder said during the more than two-hour service. "He can heal you in a time of trouble."
Felecia's mother, Felecia Demerson, 40, sat in the front row of the church with other family members. Demerson's 24-year-old daughter, Shakelia Givens, spoke briefly about Felecia, breaking down in tears.
"I love you, baby," she said as she looked down to her sister's casket.
At the front of the church, Temple Terrace detectives investigating Felecia's death and who had promised justice for her mother sat silently.
The service included singing and featured several pastors who told the family that Felecia was in the hands of the Lord, her afterlife just beginning. They said the girl would be with them always in spirit, and they would see her again.
A program of the service showed a picture of Felecia wearing a big yellow bow on her head. It was titled "Homegoing Celebration."
"Felecia was a nurturing spirit who loved kids and animals and would often be found at the nearby lake feeding the ducks and the birds," the program said. "She loved to ride her bicycle. She was a free spirit, and because of this, she never met a stranger."
At the end of the service, her casket was wheeled out to the waiting carriage for the short trip to Shady Grove Cemetery.
An engraving of two words on the side of the casket could be seen clearly in the sun: "Sugar Plum."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]