Planning a loved one's funeral with a grieving family can unearth complicated and deep-set emotions, even under the best of circumstances.
Which is why, during a quick break in the midst of meeting with the family members of murdered children Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry on Monday morning, Sylvia Ellis of Ellis Funeral Home let off some steam.
"You have to be very patient and very flexible to do this kind of work," she said to a visitor in her office. "You take nothing personally. You walk in humility."
She took a deep breath, grabbed a binder full of casket photos and headed back to a reception area where Alexander Dorsey, 35, of Detroit, the father of Stoni Blair, and Steven Berry, 31, of Redford, the father of Stephen Gage Berry, along with a handful of female relatives, were trying to agree on the most despairing of all decisions: how best to bury their babies.
Making the highly sensitive planning even more challenging was the apparent last-minute bidding of so-called "body hustlers"; purveyors of less reputable services circling the waters via cellphone during the meeting.
To be sure there was also the added pressure of widespread public scrutiny. The news broke last Tuesday that the bodies of Stoni, who was 13 when she died May 25, 2013, and Stephen, who was 9 when he died Aug. 30, 2012, were found in a deep freezer in their Detroit apartment. The children were allegedly killed by their mother, 35-year-old Mitchelle Blair. Authorities removed Blair's two surviving children and placed them in the protective care of an aunt. The country, if not the world, has been aghast at the horror.
Dorsey and Berry also are the fathers of the two surviving children: Dorsey's 17-year-old daughter, and Berry's 8-year-old son.
It was Stoni's aunts — Alex's sisters — who set up an account with the crowd-funding site GoFundMe.com to raise money to pay for the funerals.
While in a matter of days $1,600 of their goal of $5,000 was raised, but comments on the site soon turned ugly: "Absent fathers now raising money after amassing huge child support debts," read one. "Two entire families who let these kids down. Shame on the lot of you."
Others refused to donate unless they could be sure their money was going directly to the funeral home.
Finally, Michelle Dorsey had had enough.
"Hello I am one of the many aunties of the grieving family," she posted. "I have been reading some really ugly comments on here and I don't understand how you all are sleeping at night. Everyone effected (sic) by this is currently morning (sic). A lot of information has been flipped around and misconstrued …. We would appreciate it if everyone just said nothing if they have nothing nice to say."
Meanwhile, a grandfather of one of the children asked his pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, for a referral to a funeral home. Naturally, the bishop suggested his brother David Ellis Jr., who along with his wife, Sylvia, run the Ellis Funeral Home on Grand River.
Over the three decades David Ellis Jr. has been in the funeral business he has provided services for dignitaries, the forgotten and those in between.
"We've seen a lot of tragedy," David Ellis Jr. said. "I'm at the medical examiner's office two or three times a week."
When the family called, Sylvia Ellis said providing their services was "an opportunity to show that these children's lives mattered."
"We may not have been able to help them in life, but at this final time we were able to pay them respect and give them a dignified service and resting spot," Sylvia Ellis said.
To that end, David and Sylvia Ellis, along with their daughter and son, ages 11 and 7, attended the vigil for the slain children at the Martin Luther King apartments. They set up funding so donations would go directly to the funeral home. And they offered to provide the services at cost, "so as not to put an extra burden on the families," David Ellis said.
But after about 45 minutes of meeting with the families it was evident, as David Ellis put it, "that the two fathers were not of the same accord."
Suddenly, the families were leaving and the Ellises, while puzzled, graciously said goodbye, offering their "condolences regardless."
"Apparently there are other funeral homes trying to do business with them," Sylvia Ellis explained, "so there is nothing we can do other than to continue to pray for the family and these children."
David Ellis shared his wife's disappointment, but said such fallouts are not uncommon.
"In the business it's called 'body hustlers,' " David Ellis said. "They are out hustling bodies so they can say I did 10 funerals this week, and they are not even licensed." Or they make promises they can't keep, "like saying there will be no cost to the family," he said. "But it's OK, we are an honest, family-run firm. We offered our help and if they don't want it, that's fine. We will just move on to the next family. "
No sooner had the Ellises moved on than the doorbell of the funeral home rang. It was Alexander Dorsey and his mother, Linda. The family had talked it out in the parking lot and reversed their decision.
"We decided that we were in good hands with Ellis," Michelle Dorsey explained later. On Tuesday, Steven Berry followed suit. He, too, wanted Ellis to arrange his son's funeral.
For the Ellises, it was all in a day's work.
"You have to have patience and understand that the families are under a lot of pressure," Sylvia Ellis said. "It's all about the children now, and that's what is most important."