The circumstances and cause of her death still unknown, an 11-year-old New Hampshire girl's short life was celebrated Monday in a steamy school gymnasium, with friends and family members gathering to pay tribute to her in words, song and poetry.
Celina Cass was remembered as a spirited girl who was shy but starting to come out of her shell, and who always had a kind word.
The body of the fourth-grader was found Aug. 1 in the Connecticut River, a week after she was reported missing from her home in Stewartstown, N.H. An autopsy failed to establish a cause of death, though investigators have called it suspicious. Toxicology test results are pending.
"Evil took a child away, but a message returned," said the Rev. Craig Cheney, one of the speakers at the "celebration of life" Monday night, quoting a poem he said one of his parishioners had written in response to the girl's death.
At the memorial service, Celina's smiling face was all around. The service, held at a school in neighboring Canaan, Vt., where she played basketball, drew about 300 family members and friends. It opened with a guitar player singing "Tears in Heaven," an Eric Clapton song about the loss of a young child.
The girl's artwork, photographs and stuffed animals _ some with notes to her attached _ were placed on tables flanking the podium, where a photograph of her was placed. A slideshow showed still images _ Celina swimming in a pool, Celina with her basketball team, Celina playing tug-of-war with other children.
Paula Doyon, her basketball coach, said the girl was shy but had become outgoing, competitive and vibrant as she developed as a center.
She recalled a game on St. Patrick's Day to which Celina showed up in the locker room with a green shamrock headband and various other Irish-themed decorations on her uniform.
"I just looked at her, in my coach's mode, and I said `Celina, you can't wear that.' I said `The refs aren't going to let you wear that.'"
"She just looked at me with her infectious smile and said `But Paula, where's your spirit?'"
Classmate Natalie Purrington fought back tears remembering her friend.
"She would always say `Hey, girl.' She was always the type of girl that would always try to cheer us up," Natalie said.
Kirsten Lyons, school nurse at Stewartstown Community School, where Celinal was bound for fifth grade this year, said she left a big imprint on those who knew her, despite her short life.
"Everyone remembers Celina as a happy, loving girl with a beautiful smile that touched so many," Lyons said.
Lyons also had words of advice for the parents who sat somberly through the 45-minute service, many patting their children on the backs or hugging them as they listened to the tributes.
"Hug your children harder," she said. "Pull in the reins a little bit more. Say `I love you' a little bit more."