EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – On a rural hill 10 miles from the public housing complex they called home, Jimella Tunstall and her three young children were laid to rest Friday afternoon.

Three tiny white caskets sat next to a larger matching one as friends and family members gathered to say goodbye. Teddy bears and other stuffed animals were brought to Sunset Gardens of Memory to leave at the graves of the three children: Demond Tunstall, 7; Ivan Elyjah Tunstall-Collins, who would have turned 2 last Thursday; and 10-month-old Jinela Deanna Tunstall-Collins. Those at the gravesite were urged by a funeral director to take white roses from the top of the caskets as memories of the young mother and her children.

The setting for the graveside service was a peaceful one, and momentarily erased the feeling of frustration – even hate – that some said they brought to Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, where 1,000 people filled the sanctuary and spilled into the aisles and foyer for the funeral. Those attending said they still could not understand how someone could knock Tunstall, 23, unconscious, cut a fetus from her stomach then kill her three children by drowning them then putting them into a washer and dryer.

“It’s more than sad,” said one young woman.

“Unbearable,” said another.

Tiffany Hall, the woman charged with Tunstall’s murder and the death of the fetus, was mentioned once during the service. It came when a letter by Demond’s foster brother, Don Sanford Jr., was read to the crowd by a family friend. Sanford lives in Kuwait and did not attend the funeral.

“I forgive Tiffany in my heart,” Sanford said in his letter.

Hall has not been charged with the murders of the three children, although police say she led them to the bodies.

Hall’s mother, Beverly Cruise, sat motionless in the audience. She broke down as the four caskets passed by her.

Tunstall’s mother, Sandra Myers, had to be helped out of the room a few times during the three-hour service.

A stream of preachers all stressed the importance of turning to God during this troubled time and finding something positive out of the tragedy. The drummer in the church’s band pounded on the instrument as a preacher’s voice boomed: “We come to tell the devil he has not won in East St. Louis.”

The pastors reminded mourners that it was a time for peace. A time to heal. A time to think of Tunstall and her children as moving on to a better place.

“Father, we need your healing power,” said Pastor Darrell Rice of the Hopewell Baptist Church in East St. Louis.

The fevered pitch of the service culminated in pointed questions from the Rev. Don Sanford Sr. at the end.

“Can anything good come out of East St. Louis?” he demanded. He used the pulpit to make a pitch for a city youth center and asked for financial support for the effort.

Michael Harris, 27, who is a close friend of Tunstall’s brother, said he found the service uplifting and hoped others got the message: “There’s still hope for black people in East St. Louis.”

A friend of Tunstall’s, Lettie Hicks, 21, of East St. Louis, said the young mother would have been surprised by how many people turned out to show their support for the family.

Those who knew Tunstall said she was a good mother who struggled but loved her children. Demond, the oldest of the children, attended Dunbar Elementary, loved Happy Meals from McDonald’s and liked to call everyone “chicken heads.” Sadly, friends of the family said, stories on the little ones were hard to come by because of their young ages.

Rain fell lightly as the caskets were loaded into four hearses and driven to their final resting place atop a hill. Away from the violence. Away from the John DeShields housing complex where the bodies of Tunstall’s three children were found a week ago Saturday.

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