NOBLE, Ga. (BP)–Until Feb. 16, nothing much ever happened in this far northwest corner of Georgia where the state brushes up against Alabama and Tennessee. But almost overnight it has been transformed into a national media magnet following the discovery of nearly 300 uncremated bodies on the grounds of the Tri-State Crematory in this hamlet just 20 miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Walker County residents, many of them Georgia Baptists, are now wondering how such a gruesome scene could occur within a few miles of their homes and go undetected for more than 15 years. For members of Center Point Baptist Church, the macabre incident strikes even closer to home since its property adjoins that of the crematory.
The situation came to light on Feb. 15 when an animal dragged a skull onto the corner of a cemetery adjoining the church property. A woman walking her dog discovered the skull and notified the sheriff’s department, which contacted pastor Charles Cornwell.
“This is just a morbid, morbid development,” he said as he discussed the crime scene just a few hundred feet from his sanctuary. But the media attention, including interviews by the British Broadcasting Corporation, has presented opportunities to share the gospel worldwide.
“In every interview I’ve been telling the reporters that our only hope is in Jesus Christ. We don’t understand why things like this occur, but Christ is there to console us in the midst of our suffering and pain.”
While the body count continues to soar, Georgia Baptists throughout the area are seeking ways to bring a Christian witness into the lives of those looking for healing from the loss of loved ones – for the second time.
Eddy Rushing, associational missionary for the Northwest Georgia/Lookout Valley Baptist Association, said pastors have been providing counseling at the Walker County Civic Center in Rock Springs where state and federal agencies have set up their headquarters. Two of the association’s counselors have also been assigned to help grieving families deal with their loss.
Some churches have also provided meals to the workers and families.
“Our community has been shocked and overwhelmed beyond belief,” says Darrell Henry, pastor of Oakwood Baptist Church in neighboring Chickamauga. “Each day brings new discoveries which we thought were not possible.”
Early indications are that the owner of the crematorium, Ray Brent Marsh, took payment for cremations that never occurred while stacking the bodies in vaults like firewood, propping some up against trees, and hiding others in a lake on the 16-acre property. Grieving family members were given urns believed to contain the ashes of loved ones, only to discover this week that they had paid up to a thousand dollars for dirt, crushed cement, and an occasional human bone fragment.
As surreal as the situation is, Henry says the affected towns of Chickamauga, the crime scene in Noble, and Rock Springs have been as overwhelmed by national media as by the crime itself.
“This week I was interviewed by reporters from People and Time magazines, the New York Times, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s just unheard of in our part of the state,” he says.
But throughout all of the attention that the small towns have received, Henry says Baptists have strived to give a positive witness to the power of Christ to overcome such horror and to heal lives turned upside down by the discoveries.
“The message I have tried to communicate through the media interviews is that as Christians we believe that only Jesus Christ can help us through times such as these. We are trying, in Christ’s name, to bring some hope and comfort to those who are hurting and are looking for answers,” he says.
That message was communicated nationwide on Feb. 19, as Henry’s church became the gathering place for a nondenominational candlelight prayer service. About 150 people attended the service, which was covered by national print, television, and radio media.
Henry said that he and the other organizers of the service decided to allow just one print reporter, one camera crew, and one representative from National Public Radio to observe the service and to pool the material with other reporters waiting outside the sanctuary. The last thing family members needed were to be subjected to a media circus during a time of intense grieving, he added.
Henry based his sermon on John 11, primarily verses 17-37, which dealt with the death of Lazarus and the pain shared by Mary and Martha.
“I explained that even these two women were angry at the death of their brother, but that it was an acceptable anger. I tried to explain that many of those families in the service that evening were experiencing the same kind of frustration and anger and were struggling with unanswered questions.
“That’s when I was able to share that they can’t handle this kind of anger in their own strength. From verse 5 I shared that God loved them and cared for them in their time of suffering, from verse 35 I shared that God hurts when we hurt, and from verses 25-26 I shared that God, through Christ, came to give hope to Mary and Martha and he wants to give us that same hope.”
Henry then drove home the point that God is a god of life, and even though the bodies of their loved ones may still be laying out in a field after weeks or years, their soul is not there.
“That truth may be difficult to accept during a time like this, but I was able to remind them that their loved one is still alive, even though their body may have been desecrated,” he says.
Each day brings more family members to the area looking for answers to questions about the bodies of family members. Some of the cremations were supposed to have occurred up to 15 years ago, but some family members were asking about loved ones who died as recently as Feb. 14.
Four members of Henry’s church are among those who are questioning the contents of urns they received following the supposed cremation of their family member. As of Feb. 21, only about 40 of the nearly 300 bodies have been identified and most never will be because of the advanced stage of decomposition or the lack of records. DNA testing is not an option in many cases because DNA is destroyed in the cremation process, and some families may never know if their urns actually contain the ashes of their family member.
One woman who returned with the ashes of her mother was distraught to learn that the remains in her possession were actually crushed concrete, and her mother’s body was among those positively identified in the field.
Area Georgia Baptists are pitching in to help wherever possible. Henry said that Russell Wilson, minister of counseling at Oakwood Baptist Church, is one of those who has been providing counselor for those needing spiritual help at the civic center. The site is also where Georgia Baptists were first on the scene with a disaster relief feeding unit on request from Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and later with a child care unit.
The feeding unit from Stone Mountain Association has since returned to Atlanta but the childcare unit from Columbus Baptist Association has been on the scene since Feb. 19. The unit is providing childcare to families and others who need a secure location to leave their children for a few hours.
“Those of us in the ministry deal with funerals and grieving families every month, but we have never experienced anything on this scale,” Henry said. “There are hundreds of family members who are arriving who are totally devastated and are needing to be ministered to in the name of Christ.”
“This just gets more bizarre every day. You almost expect Stephen King to walk out of the woods at anytime and tell us that it’s just a movie, but that’s not going to happen.”