Little Holiday Cheer as a Region Prepares to Bury Slain Hunters
Every time the phone rings at Brecka’s Floral Photo and Garden, Rita Sevals flinches.
She knows it will be another order for a funeral bouquet, another plea for something pretty from a friend or family member whose loved one died when a trespasser emptied his semiautomatic rifle into a group of friends out for a Thanksgiving week deer hunt.
The calls have been constant since Monday, after news spread of the shooting that left six dead and two injured. The victims all were from this rural region dotted with small hamlets and larger villages, places like Rice Lake.
Sevals went to high school here with one of the dead, 55-year-old Dennis Drew. As she carefully arranged vines in a rustic milk bucket Wednesday, she remembered his love of hunting and fishing, of auto racing and stock cars.
“I remember he had a stock car when he was young. He could barely see over the steering wheel,” Sevals said. “I grew up with these people. It makes me ill, knowing that I’m putting together bouquets for their funerals.”
What actually happened out in the woods is still under investigation; Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, told investigators that he opened fire Sunday after the hunters taunted him with racial slurs and shot at him. He said he continued to fire even as they ran away and begged for help.
According to the survivors, Vang was the one who fired first after they told him he was hunting on private property and ordered him to leave.
The victims were part of a group of a dozen or so hunters who came together this time each year. In the wake of the violence, many hunters have put away their guns and cut short their traditional Thanksgiving holiday hunting trips.
“Those who are going out are very, very cautious of strangers,” said Bill Turner, a board member of the Rice Lake Rod and Gun Club.
“The rest are staying home, taking care of their families and dreading this weekend.”
Starting Friday afternoon, locals said, their days will be consumed with the sad business of grief: a long weekend spent in dark suits, attending tearful memorial services and Catholic masses.
Never have local businesses been asked to handle so many funerals at the same time.
In nearby Haugen, the barbershop and grocery store closed early Wednesday o give employees time to bake cakes and stop by to give their condolences to two of the widows.
The town’s two funeral homes have been working past dark since the shootings, meeting with religious leaders to figure out when to schedule all the funerals.
“We’re also dealing with huge numbers of people attending these services. Some we expect to see more than 1,000 people show up,” said Boyd Gilbertson, office manager for Appleyard’s Home for Funerals in Rice Lake, which is handling the arrangements for three of the dead.
All the evergreen wreaths at Brecka’s Floral are gone, and most of the poinsettias have been reserved. Buckets once full of roses are down to the last few.
Clusters of funeral bouquets are separated by name -- one for each of the hunters who died.
There are white roses entwined in baby’s breath for Jessica Willers, 27, and thick-palmed peace plants for Robert Crotteau, 42, and his son Joey, 20. Thick stocks of ivy wind around baskets that have been set aside for the funerals of Mark Roidt, 28, and Alan Laski, 43.
“We’ve had hundreds of orders,” said Suzy Marcon, the shop’s office manager who lives in Haugen. “It’s so painful when we stop and actually think about where these are going.”
Sevals and another floral designer showed up at 6:20 a.m. Wednesday to meet a truck full of purple caspia and cattails.
“We needed more that could be used in masculine-looking bouquets,” Marcon said. “These men were not into frou-frou. They would have been horrified to have bunches of baby’s breath near their caskets.”
By noon, the florists’ fingers were raw from stripping leaves and prepping vases. But they planned to keep working into the night, and be back on the job today, even though it’s a holiday.
The phone rang. It was another request, this time for Drew’s funeral. A friend wanted a bouquet that included a keepsake for the family, preferably something to do with stock cars.
Sevals looked at the order and, eyes tearing, walked away. Marcon set the slip of paper aside.
The shop would need someone to go out to find a memento for the bouquet. But right now, that could wait. Drew’s funeral isn’t until Monday afternoon.