See "Even Unto Death," our special report on snake handlers' faith.
MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - Hundreds of mourners, reporters and the curious amassed for the visitation and funeral of famed serpent-handling pastor Jamie Coots on Tuesday in this Southeast Kentucky town of about 10,000.
Coots led the tiny congregation at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, but his notoriety was worldwide. Over the years, he's become one of the most visible Christian serpent handlers in the country, inviting outsiders and journalists in to witness his unique brand of faith.
Coots starred in National Geographic Channel's "Snake Salvation," with his protege Andrew Hamblin, a 22-year-old pastor in LaFollette, Tenn. Each were recently featured in the Times Free Press' Feb 2 special report, "Even Unto Death."
Coots, who has handled for more than two decades, has been bitten more than a half dozen times. He died at home Saturday night, just a few hours after a rattler struck his right hand during a church service. Like the other times, Coots and his family refused help from paramedics, relying instead on God.
Hundreds snaked through a line during the three-hour open-casket visitation, which was followed by a late evening funeral. The family has planned for a private burial later. Coots, 42, had no life insurance and the family was taking donations from friends and supporters online to pay for funeral costs.
As the family mourned inside, crowds filled the streets lining the downtown's main drag, Cumberland Avenue. Well wishers, and local veterans came out in support of the pastor and his family as rumors spread that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. would come to protest, though they made no appearance.
Children hung over downtown balconies, and men and women smoked cigarettes and drank from Coke cans watching the spectacle. Angela Peace, who went to school with Coots and lives just down the road from his home, wasn't of his faith but came out to show support. She said she's never seen such a crowd in downtown Middlesboro.
"Not even for a parade," she said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.