On Friday morning, Evelyn Dieckhaus was supposed to be singing “What A Wonderful World” in a student play at The Covenant School in Nashville.
Instead, on Friday afternoon, the song was performed less than two miles down the road by country star Vince Gill at Woodmont Christian Church, where an estimated 1,500 people gathered to remember the third-grader gunned down on Monday alongside two other pupils and three school staff members earlier.
“It doesn’t feel like we live in a wonderful world,” Dr Clay Stauffer, the church’s senior minister since 2007, said at Evelyn’s “celebration of life”.
“It feels like we live in a broken world and a fallen world and a violent world -- and in many ways we do.
“But I know this: So much good and love is coming out of this tragedy. So much support and compassion is being shown from all over the world. And so much hurt and pain is being met with love and care. And together we’re gonna get through this – together, we’re gonna heal, because we’re stronger together,” he said.
Evelyn, who would have turned 10 this summer, died on Monday after 28-year-old Audrey Hale, a former Covenant student, shot through the school doors and entered with three guns, also killing fellow nine-year-olds Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, as well as head of school Kathleen Koonce, 60; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and custodian Mike Hill, 61.
The memorial for Evelyn marked the start of funeral and burial services for Covenant victims as Nashville continued to reel from its first fatal elementary school shooting. After the church sanctuary filled up, well before the start of the 3pm service, additional mourners crowded into two other locations on the church grounds, watching the proceedings streamed on screens.
Lady A performed two songs, followed by scripture readings and “What A Wonderful World” from Vince Gill, whose voice caught in his throat as he addressed the congregation before singing. Sniffles and quiet crying were the only sounds other than his voice.
Evelyn’s parens, Mike and Katie, and older sister, Eleanor, were in the front pews, along with her aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Then Evelyn’s father’s brother, Jeff Dieckhaus, stood before the cross-section of her hometown to reflect on her bright but short life.
“You are unrepeatable,” he said, addressing his late niece. “There is a magic about you that is all your own.”
He described Evelyn’s love for music and animals, her soft-spoken nature, her affectionate hugs and her academic diligence, smiling through his grief as he recounted “Dieckhaus family time at the lake” and other favorite memories of his niece.
“She loved babies and animals and nature,” Jeff Dieckhaus said. “ She was a deep thinker, and she had a pure and precious faith in God. She loved a good joke, the ones that would make her laugh to the point that her whole body would shake. But mixed in those laughs was this little giggle, it’s hard to describe unless you’ve heard it yourself, and even harder to forget.
“Evelyn was soft-spoken and gentle, but certainly not timid,” he said. “She had the courage of a tiger and a spirit that far outsized her nine-year-old body. Evelyn loved to snuggle and sit on your lap; like a little monkey, she would sometimes crawl up on you, hang from your back or just nuzzle into your side . Many times, she would sit on your lap facing you, smiling before moving in for the most affectionate hug one could give.”
He described his niece as “everyone’s friend – she made people feel known and seen, but never judged; she was her own friend group, never one to take sides, but instead try to include everyone,” he said.
Young Evelyn “made you feel so special,” he added. “She made you feel important.”
The near palpable sadness at Woodmont Christian was mixed with shock and disbelief; mourners arrived in pinks and pastels at the request of the Dieckhaus family to honor Evelyn’s favorite colours. The church was full of outfits that were, for many, likely intended as Easter ensembles; instead, they were pulled out to grieve for the life of an innocent.
Stuffed animals and comfort service dogs were available for the shell-shocked crowd.
Rev Farrell Mason, who read Scripture from the podium during the service and had been counseling Evelyn’s family since the shooting, addressed the congregations’s mixed feelings during her “reflection on hope”. She said the events of Monday had shaken her own faith, making her ask of God: “Where are you? How do you expect us to go forward? Is it even possible to find hope with enough muscle to keep our hearts beating, to keep us from turning our backs on you, to keep us from giving up on hope once and for all?”
But she insisted: “Hope is real, and God promises, if we hold fast to it, it will not disappoint” – later adding: “Where there is love, there is hope.”
Dr Stauffer, in his closing remarks, alluded to the debate and protests that have followed Monday’s tragedy. One day before Evelyn’s celebration of life, hundreds – many mothers, children and students – demanded gun legislation on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.
“People are going to push for change and reform; they already have,” he told mourners. “Clearly, we’ve got some problems that need to be addressed.
“There are going to be many painful days ahead, but let’s all promise to keep this beautiful family in our thoughts and prayers,” he said of Evelyn’s parents, sister and relatives, praising them for their faith and strength.
A private burial will be held on Saturday for Evelyn, as families and the wider Nashville community prepare to lay to rest the other five victims in the coming days.