Hope, not despair, was the theme of the night Thursday as the community gathered to bid farewell to one of its stolen children, Elizabeth Collins.
Elizabeth, 8, was mourned not just by her family and friends, but by thousands of people who spent months searching and praying for her and her cousin, Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, after the two girls disappeared while riding their bikes one sunny July day.
"It’s a celebration for her," Elizabeth's mother Heather Collins said as around 1,500 people filled Heartland Vineyard Church in Cedar Falls. Countless others watched the service live on the local and regional news. "I know she’ll be looking down on us, smiling and dancing along with us and singing."
The "Life and Love of Elizabeth" ceremony took place exactly five months from the day the cousins disappeared. For months their faces plastered the news and posters across Iowa as the entire state kept hope alive the girls would be found.
On Dec. 5, the devastating news came: hunters had discovered the cousins' bodies in a wooded area of Bremer County, around 25 miles northeast from where Elizabeth and Lyric were last seen.
Despite the outcome of the search for the girls, Heather emphasized Thursday's memorial service was a celebration.
"We had planned on having a big huge party for her when she came home," she said. "She did come home. Even though it was not on Earth. She's home with her heavenly father."
A service for Lyric will be held separately. Her mother, Misty Morrissey, grandmother Wylma Cook and aunt Tammy Brousseau told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier they are planning to hold a service after Christmas, possibly in January. They said they plan to have her remains cremated.
Both girls were in the community's hearts Thursday. At the Cedar Falls church, several Christmas trees and huge displays of pink flowers lined the front of the sanctuary.
"We know where they are now. We know they’re in such a better place," Heather said. "They’re going to have such a better Christmas than we are."
Pastor Chris Reeves spoke at the service, which was dominated not by mourning black but by a crowd adorned in pink, Elizabeth's favorite color. Many in the audience wore shirts printed with angel wings and the message, "They are Home."
He said he was called to the Evansdale City Hall last Wednesday, where authorities broke the news to the girls' families that their daughters' bodies had been found.
"It was like a bomb had gone off, an explosion, right there in city hall," he said. "And my heart broke in sorrow."
He said Elizabeth's younger sister Callie came up to him as he sat grieving, and simply said that her sister was in heaven now.
"There is hope in the midst of everything," he said.
After Reeves spoke, Heather took the podium with a steady stream of photos of her daughter playing on the wall behind her.
"Elizabeth in her short time here had a wonderful, wonderful life," she said.
She recalled her daughter's love of travel, of dressing up and shopping, of animals, even of bossing her siblings around. She told the congregation the rest of the night would be dedicated to singing and worship, because those were also things Elizabeth loved.
She thanked the community for what earlier that night she called, "overwhelming support."
"Thank you so much for all the outpouring, all the prayers," she said. "We just can't ask for better friends, family and community. We love you all."
The audience gave her a standing ovation, then stayed on their feet for most of the rest of the service. Singing, clapping and expressing both joy and sorrow, they sang song after song, including one of Elizabeth's favorites, "Oh Happy Day."
In the aisle, two small girls in matching sparkly pink skirts twirled and danced to the music, grasping each others' hands.
Elizabeth surely would have approved.