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Monday, January 20, 2014 - 2:55am

Nine Funerals: A Year Of Farewells To Macon's Slain

Updated: 10 months ago.
A photo of John James Johnson III is unfolded as a part of a commemorative blanket during his funeral in April. Two men were charged with Johnson's murder. (Photo: Grant Blankenship for The Telegraph of Macon)

Their loved ones had died violent deaths. Here they’d come to say their goodbyes, but for some all that came out were cries, dreadful sounds for awful ends.

Some of the first, in the form of piercing yowls, came on a cold Saturday in early March, in the moments before Shirley "ShellAnn" Green's funeral.

The line to get inside Bethel Church of God on Jeffersonville Road stretched out the door. There was nowhere left to sit, but mourners still came, single file, past Green’s casket to line walls and squeeze in where they could.

The aqua-colored sanctuary was packed. For half an hour, people stood singing "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "This Little Light of Mine" while the procession kept coming.

There were easily 200 people inside when a woman's high-pitched sorrow split the air for 15 seconds.

Mourners’ rhythmic voices and spirited claps seemed to ease the shock of staggering loss for the moment.

Green, 62, had died eight days earlier, on Feb. 22. Police said she’d been knocked unconscious at her house on Tuxedo Road, punched in the head and kicked in the stomach by her 22-year-old granddaughter.

Now it was the afternoon of March 2. That morning, I'd driven to Cordele for the funeral of a man named Kenneth Cray.

Cray, 50, raised in Crisp County, was allegedly shot dead by a woman he was visiting on Cedar Street in Macon the same day Green died.

Green and Cray were the city's first and second homicide victims of 2013.

There was a reason I went to their funerals.

I had been writing about murder and crime off and on since coming to The Telegraph in 1991. I have often reported on the aftermath of violence, its impact on families, but I’ve rarely gone to funerals.

Last January, though, I decided that attending services for the slain might render a different perspective on violent death and its wake.

Most times I showed up unannounced. I sat in back and keep to myself. No, I wasn't invited, but these were funerals. Who is?

On occasion, funeral directors recognized me from previous services and nodded.

I did my best to blend in and almost never took notes. I recorded some eulogies on my cellphone. I jotted details later.

Much of what I experienced was impossible to forget.

Like the time a preacher repeatedly called the deceased by the wrong name. Eventually, mourners spoke up, correcting him with the right name.

"That what y'all want me to call him?" the preacher said.

"That's his name!" they replied.

Or the day a minister waved a slain man's despondent brother to the altar and implored him to accept Jesus.

Or the summer afternoon a pastor spoke words no family wants to hear, "The undertakers may come now."

My recollections became this story, a scrapbook of a year in the life of a city’s deaths; glimpses of lives cut short...

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