Family of four buried in Ringgold

RINGGOLD -- Four gray hearses slowly passed through the town's ravaged business district early Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of cars making their way to a small church cemetery. The service was held just over the ridge from where a tornado last week killed the Blacks, a family of four they had now come to bury.

Six days after eight people perished here in the most devastating storm in nearly 40 years, Ringgold paused for a funeral in a sad scene that is being replicated throughout the Southeast. An estimated 328 died people across the region but the sorrow is different here, where an entire family -- Christopher Black, 47, his wife Pamela, 46, son Cody, 21, and daughter Chelsea, 16 -- was lost.

Tabitha Black was among the mourners. Cody's ex-wife, she said their 3-year-old daughter Beatrice has yet to comprehend what happened to her father.

“She’ll wake up and say that she misses her daddy and wants to go over [to his home],”Tabitha said. “But then she’ll remember that he’s in heaven and she’ll see him again some day."

About 400 people packed the Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle for the main service in this North Georgia town near Chattanooga. Mourners arriving an hour before the service, greeting each other with tears and hugs and tissue. Inside the sanctuary, the four caskets – aqua blue for the men, silver for the women -- sat side-by-side at the altar.

A black Atlanta Braves cap was placed on Christopher’s casket, while a pair of green Converse sneakers sat before of Cody’s.

Their home on Cherokee Valley Road was leveled Wednesday. Tabitha Black sat with the family's relatives in the second row.

She had married Cody in 2007 and the marriage between the two high-school sweethearts was short, maybe too short. She said that they lived in a mobile home on Friendship Road for the year they were married, a home she noted that was spared by the storm.

She described the Blacks as a tight-knit family who welcomed her into their home. Her ex-husband and his sister were exceptionally close, she said. He moved back into his parents' one-story house after they divorced.

She described Cody as a jokester and said his daughter was like him, making funny faces and hamming for cameras. Cody, she explained, always tried to make people laugh

The sense of humor was something he shared with his sister, according to Tanner Hall. The Ringgold High School freshmen said he became pals with Chelsea, a junior, through a mutual friend in the school's Japanese Club. She spiced up their daily lunch-table conversation with witty remarks and she always made sure to include him in the older group's conversations, Hall said.

He decided against going to the service.

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"I don’t want put myself in that situation after the tornado,” he said. “I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve had a dream about her so I think we’ve had some closure."

The Rev. Ed Parsons, a cousin of Christopher Black, led the funeral service, but made only a handful of references to the deadly tornado in his eulogy. The night before, he had told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he made little reference to the tragedy during his Sunday sermon at Welcome Hill Baptist Church, where he preaches and where his cousin occasionally attended. Pam, he said, was more regular.

During the 40-minute funeral service, he told the congregation that the kin agreed the Blacks would have preferred to die together rather than suffer alone. “Somehow they were just caught out there together,” Parsons said. “They wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

Harold and Jeanette Baggett, Ringgold residents and friends of Pamela Black since she was a child, said the town’s survivors were still reeling from the losses.

“It’s going to be a long time before things get back to normal in Ringgold," Jeanette Baggett said as the procession moved out. “We’re all just thankful to be alive,”

Postal trucks were interspersed among SUVs, pickups and sedans in the church parking lot. Pam Black had been a postal worker while her husband worked at Hicks Tufting Machine Service in nearby Dalton. Cody manned a service counter for T-Mobile.

After the service, family members led the procession down rain-drenched U.S. 41, the main artery through the storm-ravaged town. They passed houses reduced to rubble, stores missing roofs and fronts. Debris and tree limbs lined each side of the highway as workers continued the clean up.

The rain didn't stop until after they left the cemetery at New Friendship Baptist Church, where people crowded under canopies to hear the final words before the caskets were lowered into the ground.

After most mourners dispersed, Johnny Tucker and his  gravediggers began to fill in each hole, all of which sat in a perfect line. He didn't use a backhoe to ensure the site would look pristine, just like he hoped the Blacks would like.

"I've never had a big family of four like this," Tucker said before the procession arrived. "I try and treat each one like it was my own family members. This is a mama and a daddy and two children, so everybody will be very sad."