Victory in death: Far from defeated, faithful see God's hand in passing of Jamie Coots

photo Pastor Jamie Coots lays hands in prayer during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle In Jesus Name church located in Middlesboro, Ky.

Read moreCook: The life and death of Jamie Coots

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - The grieving danced so hard they toppled a fern.

Men in stained jeans and plaid shirts stomped up and down in front of the casket. They mumbled and shook under the funeral home's brass candelabras, and the praise to God for the life and death of Brother Jamie Coots was deafening.

Except for the tears of his widow, the mourning was hard to find.

Coots' body lay in an open mahogany casket. A plain cross and two brass pins hung on the coffin lid. On one: "Faith." The other: "Devotion."

His death, like his life, was high-profile, full of spectacle and signs. Both centered on ardent, unwavering faith, faith even unto death.

In recent years, Coots, one of the stars of the National Geographic Channel's series "Snake Salvation," had become one of the world's most well-known Christian snake handlers.

For more than three decades, believers at his family's church have taken up serpents, drunk poison and handled fire, building their lives on a disputed passage in the gospel of Mark:

"And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

For years, Coots had welcomed in the outside world to witness what for generations had been considered deeply private.

Coots had been bitten plenty of times before. Each time he relied on prayer for healing. But on Saturday, a rattler's bite proved fatal. Coots died at home just a few hours after the snake struck his right hand at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, where he was pastor.

To the commentators on CNN, to the people who mocked the story of his death on social media, to the media gawkers outside the funeral, Coots might have been a fool.

But to those who knew him, those who believed alongside him, he was a martyr, a true believer, a lightning rod, a symbol of victory.

If you had sat in a pew at the Creech Funeral Home in downtown Middlesboro on Tuesday night you'd have seen no sign of defeat. Serpent-handling won't stop at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, and it won't stop in the Coots family. His son will take up the snakes again, maybe tonight.

"Folks, those signs are still real. Don't you dare doubt it. That's exactly what he'd tell people. It's still real," said Andrew Hamblin, the 22-year-old protege of Coots and a pastor in LaFollette, Tenn. "He'd tell you, 'These signs shall follow them that believe.'"

"Nothing changes," said Cody Winn, a family friend of Coots. "The only thing that changes is that we're putting Jamie in the ground."

"It'll never die out. It's the word of the Lord as long as somebody preach it," said Jimmy Morrow, who shepherds the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ Name in Del Rio, Tenn.

Snake handlers from across the country came to Coots' funeral to affirm the faith. There was no regret, no wavering. Coots was obedient and holy, they preached.

Hundreds of locals lined the sidewalks surrounding the funeral home. People drank cans of Coke and smoked cigarettes and children hung from upstairs balconies.

This town of about 10,000 people had never seen a crowd like this.

"Not even for a parade," said Angela Peace, who attended school with Coots.

Many came because there were reports that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church was traveling to the funeral to protest, though they never came. There were veterans with American flags and people with poster boards ready to shield the family from the spotlight. Others, outsiders, said they came because they admired the depths of the man's faith. And they wanted to support the grieving family.

"Somewhere, we're all on the family tree together, whether they think we're the obscure third cousin or we think they're the obscure third cousin," said Peter Helman, the priest at the local Episcopal Church. "At the heart of the human experience and the human condition is a profound sense of the spiritual and I think that, apart from the particulars of any religious expression, is something very similar, something common."

The response from the signs-following community was no surprise to Ralph Hood, one of the nation's leading experts on serpent handlers, who was on hand for the funeral and called Coots his friend.

When someone is bitten and does survive, God is seen as a protector, Hood said. But those who succumb to the venom are often celebrated as heroes for maintaining their beliefs until the end.

"Jamie believed this enough that he died," said Bruce Helton, another Kentucky serpent handing pastor who spoke at Coots' funeral. "Whew! That's strong faith. That is faith in God, faith in what you believe in."

Psychologically speaking, it's a win-win, said Hood, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga psychology professor who has studied the faith for more than 30 years.

"There's no way that a bite falsifies the tradition," he said.

Many had a matter-of-fact approach to Coots' death. It was no surprise that he would go this way. Signs-following believers know they live a little closer to death than the rest of us.

Coots had handled thousands of deadly snakes. He lost a finger to a nasty bite more than a decade ago.

Now Coots' 21-year-old son, Cody, will take control of the family church. He and his father had been planning for this eventual transition. It was a contingency plan.

If nothing has changed within the 100 or so serpent handling churches that still exist throughout Appalachia, everything has changed for those outside this insular world. Coots was one of the few willing to bring the faith out of hiding.

He defied the secrecy that generally defines the faith and allowed the world in. He patiently explained his faith, as newspapers and documentaries basked in the spectacle of the snakes and the shouting. He gave dozens of interviews throughout the past 20 years. "Snake Salvation" brought an even wider audience.

"If one person sees it and says, 'Hey, there's gotta be something to it,' it's worth it," Coots told the Times Free Press in December.

Many other more traditional handlers criticized Coots for his openness. Some called him a sell-out.

But Coots believed he had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. And he thought television, newspapers and radio could help him spread the word, save souls. Now with his son at the helm, it's unclear whether nonbelievers will still be welcome.

The family asked for no cameras inside or around the funeral home Tuesday night.

Mourners handled fire and gathered near the casket for an altar call. There had been no snakes at the funeral home, but the handlers were feeling the call.

When Coots' son announced to the audience that they were going to the church, everyone knew what he meant.

"Think of the sincerity of this," Hood said. "They just saw a person in a coffin who died from a serpent bite and then they're going to church to handle serpents."

In the past, the funerals of snake handlers have resembled the church services of snake handlers. Those left behind almost always handle snakes, oftentimes the very snake that ended the life of the believer. At one funeral in Hamilton County in the 1940s, snakes were placed on the corpse of a fallen believer.

Before he died, Coots said he had been afraid of the snake that cost him his finger. But he eventually faced it and took it in his hands again. It was a way to win over the death and destruction and sin it represented, he said. It was a way to find closure.

At Coots' service on Tuesday, they worshipped in private until nearly midnight.

But this time, everyone went home alive.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy or 423-757-6249.