SOUTHBURY, Conn. (AP) — As she recalled the afternoon of Dec. 14, Nicole Paquette, past president of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, stopped to compose herself, but the tears kept running down her face.
"I will never forget reading the fax," Paquette said. "We all knew young children were killed, but when we saw their names, then the comma, and then the numbers 6 or 7 after their names, for their age, we all broke down."
Paquette and dozens of funeral directors who served or volunteered to help the families of 20 students and six educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown held a moving service Saturday during which they recalled the shooting and acknowledged how they all came together for the unfathomable work before them.
About 80 funeral directors from the more than 11 Connecticut homes that served the Newtown families and others who volunteered their services shed tears and hugged each other as they gathered in Southbury for a service of remembrance and reflection.
Before the service, 26 candles were lit while people filled the room.
John F. Cascio, executive director of the funeral directors association, began the service by reading the name of each of the victims.
"In our world a lit candle signifies remembrance," he said. "Let this tiny light also represent our rebirth; we reach out to each other and look to the promise of the future. Today we gather, remember and reflect."
For the association's president, Pasquale S. Folino, the images are unforgettable.
"For all of us that were involved with Newtown, the names and faces of those children are forever etched in our memories," he said.
"The town of Newtown was shaken to its foundation," Folino added. "Life oftentimes is not what it's supposed to be, it is what it is. But what is important is how we react to it."
Folino, the funeral director at Neilan Funeral Home in New London, acknowledged the 160 funeral directors across the state who answered the call, saying they did whatever they had to do for the families.
Specifically recognized was Dan Honan, of Honan Funeral Home in Newtown, the only funeral home in Newtown. Fellow funeral directors called his efforts heroic.
Honan, who spent all of his life in Newtown, had the unspeakable task of laying to rest 11 first-graders in five days.
"A funeral for a child is always the most difficult," he said. "Newtown is changed forever, but we are forever closer as a community."
Monsignor Robert "Bob" Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, where eight of the children's funerals were held, had praise for the funeral directors.
"You are truly stewards of your profession," he said. "The families found hope and great consolation in your compassion and attention you paid to every last detail. You were there for those families."
Laura Soll, communications director for the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association, said the response from funeral directors around the country was incredible. The association represents 220 funeral homes in the state.
Soll said the group got together within hours of the shooting to figure out how to offset the pressure their colleagues were facing in the wake of the tragedy.