BALTIMORE — The mourners streamed into the church all morning, many of them never having met the man who lay at the foot of the pulpit, his white shirt matching his open ivory casket.
Freddie Gray, who was born to a mother addicted to heroin and who never held a regular job, drew scant notice during his life beyond the impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood where he spent most of his 25 years.
Yet his death in police custody nine days ago transformed his funeral into a moment that resonated far beyond this city, as a parade of speakers memorialized another African American who did not survive an encounter with law enforcement.
“Most of us are not here because we knew Freddie Gray,” his family’s lawyer, William “Billy” Murphy, told the crowd. “But we’re here because we know lots of Freddie Grays. You’re not here because we grieve for Baltimore, although we do. You’re here because we grieve for a nation.”
Gray died April 19, a week after police arrested him on a West Baltimore street corner, pinned him to the ground and dragged him to the back of a police wagon. He suffered severe spinal injuries, according to his autopsy, and the cause of those injuries remains under investigation. Six city police officers have been suspended with pay, and law enforcement agencies have launched multiple probes.
The death thrust Baltimore into the epicenter of a roiling national debate over police conduct, and has prompted more than a week of mostly peaceful protests, which were marred Saturday night and again on Monday when groups of demonstrators threw rocks at police in riot gear, torched cars and looted businesses.
Hours earlier, as the service for Gray began, the first rows of pews at New Shiloh Baptist Church filled with dignitaries, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, all of them pausing to console Gray’s mother, father and five sisters. Three Obama administration officials also attended.
There were relatives of other men who were killed during well-publicized encounters with police, including the sister of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after an officer placed him in a chokehold. She sat near the mother of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant whom police shot 41 times in the Bronx more than a decade ago.
But most of the mourners were African Americans who live in Baltimore. Many said they felt compelled to attend, not because they knew Gray, but because they are outraged by his death.
“I don’t understand how these things keep happening,” Ken Carolina, 54, a retired corrections officer, said, pausing outside the church after viewing Gray’s body. “It’s another life gone.”
Norman Bull, 58, a retired construction worker, put on a gray suit and walked 15 blocks to the service, most of it spent meditating on Gray’s death.
“They severed the man’s neck,” Bull said. “It makes no sense what the police are doing to black men.”
Patricia Wudel, 62, was among the few white mourners at the church, driving to the service from her home in Washington. As she arrived, she held a dozen roses.
“I’m devastated,” Wudel said, her voice thick with emotion. “His death was tragic and wrong. This church should be filled with white people showing solidarity.”
The chorus sang stirring hymns, including “Amazing Grace,” and the sounds of sobbing could be heard in the pews. A cluster of speakers delivered soaring oratory, with brief references to the details of Gray’s short life, including his having played football as a teenager.
No mention was made of his lengthy arrest record, and the handful of convictions, mostly drug related, or that he lived off monthly checks from the settlement of a lead-paint lawsuit filed on behalf of him and his siblings against the owners of the house where they grew up.
During his remarks, Cummings, whose congressional district includes Baltimore, sought to ensure that Gray was more than a symbol of what many in the congregation regard as injustice.
“Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive?” Cummings asked. “Did you see him?”
Cummings spoke of his nephew who was the victim of gun violence — “blasted away and we still don’t know who did it.”
“I mourn for what could have been,” he said. Referring to Gray, Cummings said, “We will not rest until we see justice done.”
Murphy, the family’s lawyer, called Gray’s death an opportunity to reform the city’s police department and repair “a corrosion of justice.”
“We have to step up to the plate as giants, not as political midgets,” he told the crowd. “This is our moment to show who we really are.”
He went out of his way to praise Rawlings-Blake, a contrast to the criticism leveled by civic leaders in recent days. Some have said that the mayor and other city officials have not released additional facts about Gray’s death.
“She knows what time it is,” Murphy said, alluding to the mayor having grown up in the city as the daughter of a prominent African American state legislator. “She knows what the police do. There’s not a single person in this church who don’t know what they do.”
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, who has coordinated many of the protests and delivered the eulogy on Monday, said too many questions remain surrounding Gray’s death.
“We don’t know if it’s about an asthma attack,” he said, his voice rising. “It could have been excessive force. We don’t know if it’s because he didn’t have his seat belt on. All I know is he’s dead.”
Whatever the answers, Bryant urged African Americans to “lift your head” and seek justice. “Get your black selves up and change this city!” he shouted.
After the service, pallbearers placed Gray’s casket in a black-and-gray hearse that drove to the cemetery. About 50 of Gray’s relatives and friends followed.
None of the pastors who had officiated at the church service were present.
Instead, a mortician recited a closing prayer, after which four doves were released into the air.
Hamil R. Harris, Peter Hermann, David Nakamura and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.