At times the mourners cheered, standing on their feet and clapping wildly as the pastor spoke of Jesus and the peace that would come in heaven.
But at other moments, there were raw emotions -- the tears of a mother, the pounding fists and sobs of a sister, and the eloquent remembrance of a cousin -- at the funeral service yesterday for Deneen L. Thomas, a victim of the East Baltimore fire that killed eight people last month.
Thomas, 43, died at the hospital Sunday, nearly two weeks after the fire at 1903 Cecil Ave. -- the rowhouse where she was the head of a household that included four generations of one family. Thomas' father, her two sons, her grandson, her nephew and two others also died in the blaze.
In trying to make sense of her death, mourners remembered all she had suffered. Thomas, known as "Miss Nina," jumped from a second-floor window to escape the burning home. Burned on more than half her body, she underwent grueling skin grafts.
"In spite of the tragedy, the good news is she's with the Lord," the Rev. William Sewell of the Interfaith Academy Baptist Church told the hundreds gathered at the March Funeral Home-East. "I might be sad today if I thought Deneen didn't know the Lord. I thank God Deneen didn't have to go through another skin graft.
"God said, 'Forget about that corruptible body, and get on up here.' You ought to praise God that Deneen didn't have to suffer anymore. He said, 'Come on up,'" Sewell said.
Those words seemed to comfort the mourners who came in droves to say goodbye to a woman lauded for her generosity and dedication to family and friends. They filled the pews. They spilled out into the aisles. There were so many, they stood along the rear wall of the chapel.
A large photo of Thomas, with a slight smile on her face, was placed on a stand near her coffin. Mourners kissed her coffin and hugged it.
They offered comfort, too. Carol Howell, Thomas' mother, sat in the front row, sobbing quietly and clutching a tissue as a soloist sang a gospel tune. The mourners kissed her cheek, rubbed her back and hugged her.
Within the grief, there was a quest for answers.
"To me, when this kind of event happens, something in the system is broken," said Terry Montgomery, Thomas' cousin, who spoke before the crowd. "I'm not a man of hollow words. The real issue here is, we have people cast aside and people living outside of society, where they can't get help with housing. ... I'm not here to be political. This is my family. I challenge anyone ... the mayor, to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Applause greeted the Baltimore Fire Department representatives and other city officials who attended the service.
"It's been a trying time for all of us," said Reggie Scriber, deputy commissioner of community service for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, as he spoke to the mourners. "The mayor [Sheila Dixon] sends her blessings and greetings. We're not going away. ... If there's anything you need, you can call my cell phone. The city of Baltimore continues, continues to pray for the family who suffers through this."
An obituary handed out at the service said that Thomas attended Baltimore City public schools and held various jobs, most recently as a cashier at a Park Heights liquor store. "She had a heart of gold and would open her home to anyone. Nina loved cooking and would often throw cookouts where she would make her infamous barbecue ribs and macaroni and cheese. She will be missed by all who knew her," the obituary read.
Thomas' daughter, Chriseria A. Thomas, survived the fire. Both her arms were burned, her right one still bandaged yesterday. Her father, Fred Johnson, addressed the mourners, telling them that Thomas' "door was always open. Family meant the world to her. Today I said goodbye to the mother of my child. I miss your smiling face. You had such a kind heart. ... You were always my friend. I love you."
Before Chriseria Thomas, 20, left for the ride to King Memorial Park in Baltimore County where her mother was buried, she returned to the empty chapel. She walked to her mother's casket and picked up her picture. She held it against her chest and went back outside.
ONLINE For video of the funeral, go to www.baltimoresun.com/fire