Funeral procession

Horse-drawn buggies line up for the funeral processions down Georgetown Road in the village of Georgetown, Pa. (Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett / October 5, 2006)

In the chill before daylight yesterday, two men with long beards stood before freshly dug graves in a small cemetery, where four little girls were soon to be buried.

The girls, two young sisters and two neighbors, were victims of a massacre in their one-room Amish schoolhouse on Monday that left five girls dead, another who has been taken off life support and four more who are in serious or critical condition.

Down twisting country roads later in the morning came dozens of horse-drawn black buggies, clip-clopping to the Bart Amish Cemetery in three successive funeral processions. A few children gazed curiously from their buggy windows at the reporters and photographers who thronged the streets. Their parents, wearing broad-brimmed black hats or bonnets, for the most part stared straight ahead with solemn faces.

But a few motioned toward the small, tan house with the green Jeep parked out front, the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who shot the girls and then took his own life in the West Nickel Mines schoolroom.

Since Roberts, a milk truck driver with three young children of his own, shattered their peaceful world, the Amish community has struggled to mourn while dealing with the intrusion of national media into their reclusive lives. The attention has been troubling, they say.

"We're glad it's over, that's for sure," said Sarah Beiler, 26, as she cut black cloth with long shears at an Amish store near the cemetery.

A relative of shooting victim Anna Mae Stoltzfus was in the shop, buying the fabric to make mourning clothes for the 13-year-old whose funeral will be held today.

The bodies of Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7, Marian Fisher, 13, and the Miller sisters, Mary Liz, 8, and Lena, 7, were buried yesterday after three separate funeral ceremonies, one following the other, in their parents' homes. According to Amish tradition, the girls were clothed in white dresses and capes, and lay in handcrafted wooden coffins.

From a cornfield on a hill, a line of more than 30 buggies could be seen rolling past a white fence into the cemetery for the first of the burials, that of Naomi Rose, about 11:45 a.m.

They were escorted by several police cruisers guarded by uniformed and undercover police officers. State police aircraft - a helicopter and a plane - circled overhead.

The voices of children playing in the yard of another nearby Amish school could be heard during the burial. Cattle grazed across the paved road from the cemetery, and flocks of migrating geese flew in formation above.

Yesterday had threatened to be much more tumultuous than it turned out.

A church group that pickets military funerals had announced plans to demonstrate here, prompting a local group of bikers to arrive on the scene with the intention of shielding the families from any protest.

Members of the Westboro Baptish Church of Topeka, Kan., accepted a deal from the host of a syndicated radio show for one hour of air time in exchange for promising not to demonstrate at the funerals. The group blames military deaths in Iraq, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and tragedies such as the one that befell the Amish children on divine retribution for America's permissive morals.

Still, the bikers milled about the Bart Volunteer Fire Department in case they were needed.

Burly men wearing leather vests and bandanas chatted with dark-suited Amish elders, just one of the week's surreal images.

"These people are suffering," said Larry Copeland, a member of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. "We show up for support."

Among the crowd of bikers, police officers, reporters and neighbors who stood along the procession route were several friends and relatives of Roberts' wife, Marie. They gathered at the end of the driveway of their home and waved as the Amish saluted them from their buggies.

"It's hard to accept what has happened," said Jacquie Hess, an aunt of Marie Roberts. "This was not the Charlie any of us knew."