Mourners from Newark and Irvington said their final farewells Saturdayin Newark last week.
The fire is believed to be the most lethal within Newark in at least the last 30 years, said Fire Director Fateen Ziyad.
In Irvington, dozens filled the pews of Eglise Baptiste de la Nouvelle Jerusalem for the funeral services for 2- and 3-year-old siblings Jevena and Jevens Joseph, respectively, who died of smoke inhalation after flames ripped through their third-floor apartment.
"Jevens and Jevena were very loving and caring children," read their obituary, recited during the hour-long service spoken in both French Creole and English. "They liked going to the park to play in the grass."
Near the altar, pictures of the smiling Jevena and Jevens flanked their small white caskets adorned with yellow lilies. The two children, depicted on the funeral program with angel wings, were remembered as loving tots whose favorite cartoons were "Tom & Jerry" and movie "Madagascar."
"There's something uniquely agonizing in seeing these lives taken so quickly and so soon," said Newark Mayor Cory Booker, adding that the family's grief is shared among the entire community.
"In this time, I believe that our city will make the right choice, to be there for this family permanently full time, to support them with our prayers, our faith, our energy and our love," the mayor added.
Originally from Florida, the and quickly became part of the Newark community, known as a quiet but friendly family. Jevens was a beloved student at Early Head Start, a preschool program in Newark, with Newark Preschool Council's Paula Johnson-Case assuring the Josephs they'd always be members of the school.
"Your son was a wonderful child and he will be sadly missed by the staff and students who knew him," said Johnson-Case.
Also in attendance were several members of the Newark Fire Department, including Ziyad, as well as Irvington's North Ward Councilman David Lyons.
At the end of the ceremony, mother Elmita Louis took a moment and gingerly placed her hand on top of each casket in a final farewell, before exiting the church as she was overcome with emotion.
Later that morning, Booker, Ziyad and a few hundred others also attended the funeral service for the three members of the second family claimed in last week’s blaze, Shelton Freeman, 44; his daughter Angelica, 5; and stepson Nazeer Blackston, 17. Freeman shared the home with Angel Williams, the mother of Angelica and Nazeer.
Angelica’s tiny white coffin lay between the larger blue ones of the members of her blended family at Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Clinton Avenue Saturday morning. A large pink placard with a hand-drawn figure of Dora the Explorer and dotted with photos of the little girl with a wide smile rested against her coffin during the service.
Fighting back tears, Angelica’s cousin Nikkita Williams remembered a recent incident where Angelica had gotten into her older cousin’s cosmetics and played dress up, painting her eyelids mismatching shades.
“She turned to me and said, ‘Do I look pretty? And I said no, you don’t look pretty, you look beautiful,” Williams recalled.
Classmates and staff from East Orange Campus High School joined family members in paying their respects to Nazeer, a student in the music technology program for the last three years. A teacher recalled a helpful young man with a shy smile. His cousin, Niassim Williams, said Nazeer had a strong artistic bent, expressing himself through poetry and music -- although, unlike many of his peers, he did not consider himself a rapper.
“He would say I’m a lyrical musician,” Williams said.
Another school staff member recalled how Nazeer would have to be gently reminded to remove the hood from the “hoodie” sweatshirts he preferred to wear.
“I can just imagine him reaching the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, take down the hoodie, son. And as soon as he gets through he puts it back up,” the staffer said, drawing knowing laughter from the crowd.
Shelton Freeman, a 1986 graduate of Central High School and a Newarker for most of his life, leaves behind six children and two grandchildren. Friends recalled their tight-knit neighborhood upbringing, where Freeman and his friends would enter one another’s houses for a quick snack or just to say hello. He was also remembered Saturday as a man of deep religious faith.
“I talked to Shelton about many subjects, but when I spoke to him about Jesus Christ his eyes lit up,” said Rev. Dr. Ben Gonzalez, a chaplain at University Hospital. “Right now he is in the presence of the Lord. I believe we’ll see him again. You shall see him again, because he shall live.”
Agnes Freeman, Shelton Freeman’s mother, was stoic as she expressed her gratitude to the congregation for the outpouring of support her family has received in the past week.
“I thank each and every one of you that called. I thank you for your presence,” she said. Jevens, Jevena, Angelica, Nazeer and Freeman will all be buried in Newark's Fairmount Cemetery.
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