RICHLANDS, Va. — On the highest hilltop of Clinch Valley Memorial Cemetery, overlooking the lush green hillsides of the Appalachian Valley, 4-year-old Ethan Stacy was laid to rest Wednesday.
A funeral service was held in the small town of Grundy, Va., where it was standing room only in the 300-seat chapel of the Grundy Funeral Home. A 28-mile procession to Richlands followed, with a gold hearse carrying Ethan's small gray casket.
Joe Stacy, Ethan's father, cried as the service ended, and family members offered him a consoling hug. As the father was getting into his vehicle to leave, he was approached by the parents of Stephanie Sloop, the boy's mother who has been arrested in connection with Ethan's death. The couple flew to Virginia from Florida for the funeral.
The three of them hugged, and Sloop's mother, Katrina Busby, wearing a hat and dark sunglasses, kissed Stacy on the cheek. It was unknown what was said during the brief exchange. Both families asked the news media to turn their cameras away as the two groups met.
Stephanie Sloop, who is Stacy's ex-wife, and her newlywed husband Nathan Sloop remained in the Davis County Jail on Wednesday, accused of killing Ethan and burying his body in a remote area near Powder Mountain in Weber County.
The focus Wednesday, however, was not on the Sloops, but on a town saying goodbye to a boy whose death has touched people's lives nationwide.
"I just want to take care of my son right now," Joe Stacy said.
He added that the outpouring of support he has received has been overwhelming, but the reality of what happened to his son hadn't fully hit him yet.
"You never realize how many good people are out there until something bad happens," he said before the funeral service began. "I still haven't reached the point that I believe any of this has happened to him, has happened to me, his family. I wanna believe he's coming home, and I know he's not."
Stacy said he remembered all the good times with Ethan, "which was every moment. There were no bad times."
Evangelist Mike Rife of the Church of Christ told the congregation that children are the most precious thing in God's kingdom.
"According to the scriptures, (Ethan) was the greatest in the eyes of God," he said.
If Ethan were here, Rife said he believes he would say, "Life is pretty precious, so don't take it for granted, folks."
Rife told the congregation the word "tomorrow" was in the Bible 57 times, but the word "today" was written more than 1,700 times. "Today, we need to learn the value of life," he said.
Rife added he believes Ethan would have several messages for them, including that there is bad in the world, but God knows what's going on.
"He'd smile and say, 'Listen folks, God's in control, and I'm OK,' " Rife said.
Rife reminded the congregation of many bad people and events in history, including a shooting at the town's law school eight years ago that left three people dead.
"We think because we're down here in the mountains we're sheltered from this? It's everywhere," he said. "Ethan just reminded us we all have a bad side; that's why we need God to guide us."
Speaking to Joe Stacy and his fiancée, Becky Elswick, Rife assured him that God would be with him and life will improve.
"Sometimes things have to get bad before they get good," Rife said. "It won't be today nor tomorrow, but … the best is yet to come. … God has not turned his back. God is aware of this."
As the congregation rose and sang "Jesus Loves Me," they each stopped by the front pew where Elswick and Joe Stacy sat for the service ?— her head on his shoulder for most of it — and offered their condolences.
At the grave site, Rife read Psalm 23. He talked about when he first had received the news over a week ago that Ethan was "missing" and how even he wasn't sure at first what to do. But because the Lord was his shepherd, he would deliver him from evil, the evangelist said.