No smiling, dancing little girl should ever have a funeral at age 6.
Yesterday, it seems, someone upstairs agreed. Above the enormous Deliverance Evangelistic Church at 2001 W. Lehigh Ave., once the sprawling site of Connie Mack Stadium, somber clouds remained in place throughout the 21/2-hour service taking place there, as if in apology for the tragedy being experienced inside.
Beginning at 11 a.m., nearly 800 mourners streamed in to organ music and hymns to say goodbye to Aaliyah Tysheria Sernora Griffin - the first of last week's four victims of the Feltonville car crash to be buried.
Among them were the families of Gina Marie Rosario, and Latoya and Remedy Smith, the other three victims of Donta Craddock, who, fleeing police in a Pontiac after he and his stepbrother stole a motorcycle last Wednesday, jumped a curb and crashed his car into them.
The mourners came in suits and sweatpants, shorts and running shoes, wheelchairs and skullcaps, and T-shirts that read "Rest in Peace, My Little Angel."
In the well of Deliverance's sanctuary, as the processional began, Aaliyah - her life lasting a mere six years, four months and two days - lay in an open white casket, a tiara on her head. Above, inscribed on the wall, were the words of Matthew 11:28: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."
More than one mourner, after viewing, repeated the same phrase: "She looks like a little princess."
At her left, along with other floral arrangements, sat one that spelled out, in large letters, "Pooka"- Aaliyah's nickname. At each side of the casket, two Deliverance nurses stood holding tissue boxes, a part of the ministry that won grateful appreciation from many. The sight of such a pretty little girl in a casket sent scores of mourners into sobs the moment they viewed her.
But if the sky signaled contrition, the message within was different. There, as Aaliyah's extended family repeatedly wept and embraced, one speaker after another invoked God's will, Jesus' love, and the memory of a young charmer who, all agreed, was now entertaining her new hosts in heaven.
"We come to celebrate today," declared the Rev. Roslyn M. Davis of Deliverance, who officiated and urged mourners to understand Aaliyah's death as part of God's plan. "We're late with the celebration. . . . The celebration in heaven was the other day."
Everybody in the room with a child, Davis acknowledged, was holding that child "a little bit tighter now. . . . All you've got to do is trust God." Aaliyah and the other victims had also done something earthbound, she emphasized, "what politics is not able to do, what government is not able to do - they brought together a city."
Pastor Gregory Boykins of Second Unity Baptist Church, 1244 N. 18th St., returned early from burying his own mother in North Carolina to deliver a spirited eulogy that echoed Davis' advice: Let us celebrate Aaliyah's appointment in heaven.
"This is the will of God, am I right?" he asked, delivering his eulogy in high-spirited, rhythmic tones.
"We might as well have joy in knowing Aaliyah is in heaven. . . . She needed to be helpful somewhere else. . . . To all the 'why?' questions, Jesus has the answer. . . . We cannot be angry. Our entertainer is with God."
For the immediate family, the day's pain made that way of looking at things something that at best would take time.
Kaillalah Griffin, Aaliyah's mother, who kissed the body of her deceased daughter gently early in the service, sobbed and heaved often. She had to be walked slowly backward to her second-row seat by a friend after the casket was closed.
Aaliyah's father, Frank Amin Savage, who is no longer with her mother, wore a white T-shirt with a photo of Aaliyah with wings. He sat in the fourth row, looking devastated.
"That's my granddaughter," said Margaret Savage, Frank's mother. "We didn't find out that she was dead until Friday, and the accident happened Wednesday. My son didn't find out till Saturday."
"He's not dealing with it too good," she said, eyes on her son. "He didn't want to move from in front of the casket. . . . I had to go down there and get him."
Both family and Aaliyah's teachers reminded everyone that Aaliyah already had her own personality. She "loved chicken, pizza, French toast, yogurt, pancakes," and, of course, Hannah Montana. "When she walked right up to [other children] and asked, 'Do you want to play?' " said one of her teachers, "she made every child feel welcome."
The programs distributed by ushers, full of photos of Aaliyah and messages to her, filled out the picture.
"She loved school and couldn't wait to return in September," recalled her mother in a letter titled "My Pooka." Aaliyah "was so anxious to return to school, we were forced to home-school her."
As mourners headed to Mount Joy Cemetery, Ted Canada, father of Aaliyah's stepfather, Theodore Brown, said, "I'd like to reach out and thank everybody for their love and support in the city of Philadelphia. They should know that our family really appreciates everything."
Part of that love and support came Monday night, at a fund-raiser for all three families that lost loved ones. Organized by Radio One Philadelphia at First Baptist Church of Paschall, it raised, according to E. Steven Collins of Radio One, about $12,000, which will be divided evenly among the families.
Today will be the viewing for another of the victims, 7-year-old Gina Rosario, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Compagnola Funeral Home, 4405 N. Fifth St. The funeral will be 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church, 5 W. Girard Ave., with burial to follow in Greenmount Cemetery.
The viewing for Latoya Smith, 22, and her daughter, Remedy, 11 months, the third and fourth victims, will be Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. at the United Methodist Church of Bala Cynwyd, 314 Levering Mill Rd., with the funeral to follow at 11. They will be buried at Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd.