HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) — Family and friends of a Canadian teen who hanged herself after she was allegedly raped and bullied for months were urged at her funeral Saturday to celebrate her life and use her story to draw attention to the circumstances that contributed to her death.
More than 100 people filled St. Mark's Anglican Church to pay their last respects to 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, whose family said she was photographed while being sexually assaulted in 2011 by four boys and bullied after the photo went viral online.
The teen's death on Sunday has been compared with two other episodes recently in the news — the death of a 15-year-old California girl who took her own life after she was allegedly sexually abused and an explicit photo of the assault circulated online among her classmates, and a case in Ohio in which two high school football players were convicted of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl, an incident recorded on cellphones and gossiped about online.
Police had concluded there were no grounds to charge anyone in the Canadian teen's case after an initial yearlong investigation — a finding that raised a public outcry after Parsons' family shared her story online. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Halifax said Friday that it would reopen the investigation after receiving new information about the case from a source who is willing to work with them.
Rev. John Morrell noted in his eulogy that social media contributed to Rehtaeh's depression and death, but said it also allowed her family to share her tragic story around the world.
"It is a time of celebration and thanksgiving of her short life amongst us," said Morrell. "However, given the worldwide attention to the events leading up to this tragedy, it is appropriate to focus on what happens tomorrow, and the day after, and weeks and years to come.
"How can our society provide a safe haven for young girls? Why do young men feel that young girls are but objects for their sexual fantasies and pleasure? Why do teenagers avoid seeking help when they are depressed and suicidal?"
The sound of church bells echoed through the busy street in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over the sound of a bagpiper as a mix of mourners from teenagers to politicians filed into the church.
After the service, Angella Parsons, Rehtaeh's cousin, said that since her death, the support from the community has been overwhelming, calling it "a true testament to the beauty of humanity."
"We are eternally grateful for the large gathering of friends and strangers that Rae's story has touched," said Parsons, clutching a small stuffed dog with its tag inscribed "Rehtaeh." ''The family has been recipients of random acts of kindness from people who we don't even know."
Parsons said some of Rehtaeh's close friends held a private vigil in front of their home in the suburb of Cole Harbour on Friday. The night before, about 300 people gathered in a downtown Halifax park to pay tribute.
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said after the funeral Saturday that he attended the service as a father and noted the tremendous outpouring of support for Rehtaeh's family.
Morrell said Parsons should be remembered for her loving and caring nature.
"Rehtaeh was a lovely young woman on the threshold of adulthood and maturity," Morrell said. "The most important part of our service this morning is to remember Rehtaeh in her early life, to celebrate the love and service she showed to others, and to commend her soul."
In Canada, the issue of bullying was propelled into the public spotlight last fall after the suicide of British Columbia teen Amanda Todd, whose heart-wrenching video about bullying and cyber-stalking was seen worldwide.