A blue-eyed first grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Dylan Christopher Jack Hockley loved trampolines, plain spaghetti with garlic bread and the color purple. On Friday, purple was everywhere at the Walnut Hill Community Church in nearby Bethel—his mother’s blouse, his father’s shirt, his brother’s tie—as hundreds of people packed in for his funeral.
On Dec. 14, Dylan, who was six-and-three-quarters and autistic, was killed in the arms of his special education teacher, Anne Marie Murphy, when a lone gunman entered his classroom and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. Twenty students, five teachers and the principal were killed at Sandy Hook in what became one of the worst mass shootings in American history.
Now, as the final funeral processions weave through the streets of Newtown, Conn. and surrounding communities, residents oscillate between past and present tense while referring to the victims as they search for ways to move beyond the tragedy. The media hordes have grown smaller but traffic on the main road through town is still congested, and while people here were initially comforted by the roadside memorials that have sprung up on every other corner, some say they’re just distractions that will eventually be torn down. At one, near the school, a stuffed bear is gripped protectively by a larger one, just as Dylan was last Friday morning.
John Dischinger, one of the pastors at Walnut Hill, opened the ceremony by urging the congregation to replace hatred with love, and darkness with light, in order to properly celebrate Dylan’s life. “I don’t know about you, but I think we’ve had enough darkness,” he said. A woman on the stage then began singing “Hallelujah”—Dylan’s favorite song from Shrek—rewritten with happier lyrics for the service.
His mother, Nicole, spoke of the “special” bonds that Dylan shared with his teachers, Victoria Soto and Murphy. “At the firehouse, I was looking for Mrs. Murphy because I knew no matter what, she would be with Dylan,” she said. First-responders found Murphy cradling Dylan in her arms—an apparent effort to shield him and others from the bullets.
Services for Murphy, 52 and a mother of four, were held Thursday in Katonah, N.Y., where she lived before settling in Newtown. “Annie laid down her life for her friends,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archibishop of New York, at her memorial service. Her life, he said, and the sacrifice she made for Dylan, “brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death.”
“Her family confirmed to us that she died trying to protect Dylan,” Nicole Hockley said at her son’s memorial service, with her husband Ian by her side. They took comfort, she said, in the fact that he wasn’t alone—that he was never alone.
Throughout the service, friends of the family approached the podium and recounted stories of how they came to know the Hockleys and their youngest brown-haired boy. One woman recalled the first time he ate chocolate cake and how he would laugh while tirelessly rewinding parts of movies that he found funny. Above the stage, two screens displayed family photos and home movies of Dylan with his parents and his eight-year-old brother, Jake. When one clip showed Dylan popping out of a box on the floor, grinning, the hall filled with laughter.
At one point, his mother told a story about asking Dylan why he would sometimes flap his arms up and down when he got excited, as some autistic children are known to do. She wasn’t expecting a response because his language skills were still underdeveloped, but he did answer: “Because I am a beautiful butterfly.”
“He helped us to be stronger people than we might have been without him,” Dylan’s father said. He and Nicole moved with the boys from the U.K. to Newtown almost two years ago and were convinced that Dylan would flourish here. “Newtown just felt right,” he added, thanking the emergency response personnel who had aided the community since the morning of the shooting. “We’ll never regret this decision.”
Shortly before they finished speaking, Nicole made a veiled nod to the renewed nationwide calls for increased gun control. “I believe that Dylan and the others are a catalyst,” she said. “His death will have meaning. There will be a positive change from this. We’ll be part of it. Newtown will be part of it.” Right before the two stepped off stage to a standing ovation, Ian concluded their statements by saying: “We love you so much, Dylan. Our beautiful, beautiful butterfly.”
Following the service, the congregation gathered outside. As a band played “Amazing Grace,” Dylan’s brother Jake released 26 balloons—20 of them purple to represent the children, and six of them white for the adults — into the gray, cloudy sky. A moment later, one final purple balloon was freed, speeding up to catch to the others. Clutching Jake close to her, Nicole wiped a few tears from her eyes and watched them fly away.