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Deaths push small town to tipping point

Sharon Webb, owner of The Flower Shop in Nashville, Ga., supplied more than 90 wreaths and other floral items for funerals last month.
Sharon Webb, owner of The Flower Shop in Nashville, Ga., supplied more than 90 wreaths and other floral items for funerals last month.Elliott Minor
/ Source: The Associated Press

A death seldom goes unmourned in this small farm town. So when 11 townspeople died over just 15 days, it was practically a calamity.

The shocking string of deaths taxed the town’s hospital, funeral home, florists, churches and weekly newspaper, which usually runs only only three to five obituaries per issue — and even some of those are from outside the community of 5,000.

Around town, it is difficult to find someone here who isn’t grieving after the apparently unrelated deaths of 11 elderly residents between Feb. 10 and Feb. 25. Seven of the victims died within a 36-hour span.

“We’re tired,” said Sharon Webb, owner of The Flower Shop, one of the town’s two florists. Webb filled more than 90 orders for funeral wreaths, flower baskets and potted plants. “People found it hard to believe that there could be that many deaths so quickly in a small town.”

Timing appears to be a coincidence
This week’s Berrien Press devoted a whole page to the obituaries of the 11, plus four others who died elsewhere or later.

The timing of the deaths appears to be just coincidence. Initial news reports that the deaths were linked to a flu outbreak at the Berrien County Nursing Center, where some of the deceased were residents, proved false.

But some townspeople are still afraid to take their elderly parents to the adjoining Berrien County Hospital, for fear that something is going around.

Dr. Lynn D. Feldman, the state’s district health director, said an investigation showed that only two of the 11 tested positive for flu, but they also had chronic health problems that could have contributed to their deaths. Five others died of various long-term illnesses, such as heart disease, and at least one died of pneumonia.

“Most all of them were in their 80s and 90s,” said Betty Fackler, whose 80-year-old mother, Blanche Rice, was among the dead and suffered from a kidney infection. “Their systems were already weak.”

Bob Lovein, the county coroner and local funeral home director, said it was the busiest two weeks in the 59-year history of his family’s funeral business. The funeral home handled all 11 embalmings, and all but one of the burials. That is about as many cases as it normally handles in an entire month.

Staggered funerals
Lovein said he and the home’s two other funeral directors worked all night Feb. 22 preparing for three funerals the next day, the most in a single day they have ever handled.

Nearly everyone in town knew at least one of the dead. So the funerals were held at staggered times to avoid any scheduling conflicts and spare people from having to choose between friends.

The Rev. Rick Williams, pastor of the First Baptist Church, recruited the church’s retired pastor and assistant pastor to help officiate at the funerals for three church members. He said the church’s berevement committee was kept busy making dinners for survivors or delivering food to their homes.

The dead ranged in age from 76 to 93. They included two of Mary Alice McGee’s distant relatives.

“It’s devastated the whole community,” said McGee, president of the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce. “There was sadness for the families, but the numbers were what the conversations were on. It happened so fast.”