ST. LOUIS — On the eve of Michael Brown's funeral Monday, the teen's parents saw their son for the first time since his death and tried to prepare for a burial that will test their strength.
At noon Sunday, about 100 family members and friends gathered for a private viewing of Brown's body at Austin A. Layne Mortuary. They gazed at Brown, who lay with his arms crossed in a gold and black casket. He wore a blue-and-white-checked shirt, a navy blue sweater vest and a neatly tied red-and-blue-striped bow tie. He showed no sign of the gunshots that ended his life Aug. 9.
Brown's parents each spent time alone with his body. Then other people came in.
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"They say tomorrow is going to be the hardest day, but I think today was — just seeing my baby laying there, cold," Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, 34, told USA TODAY. "It did something to my heart. It's too much. It's too much."
The story of Brown has been unavoidable since the black 18-year-old was shot by a white police officer on Aug. 9. in Ferguson, Mo., but Michael Brown Sr. said seeing his son's dead body made the past two weeks real.
"It was a dream," Brown, 36, told USA TODAY. "It's a reality now. I can't really explain how I feel. I'm torn, hurt, upset and angry. I can't explain."
He said he wanted Monday, the day of his son's funeral, to be without demonstrations.
"I really don't want protesters tomorrow," the father said. "Our son needs to have a moment of silence for tomorrow."
Earlier in the day, Michael Brown Sr. spent most of his time at the private viewing pacing the carpet and greeting people. After a while he took off his T-shirt, making a new tattoo of his son's face visible outside his undershirt on his right shoulder.
The room was mostly silent save for sobs and babies' cries. Brown's grandmother, Desuirea Harris, sat in a corner outside the room, crying uncontrollably, embraced by family members. She later joined McSpadden on a pew just to the right of the casket.
Many people stopped to hug McSpadden, 34, who wore a T-shirt with a photo of her son in his graduation cap and gown and a photo of McSpadden looking distraught. Her shirt said, "He was special 2 me" on the front. The back said, "To my children, if I had to choose between loving you and breathing ... I would use my last breath to tell you I love you."
Other family members wore blue-and-white shirts that said "A Bond Never Broken" with a photo of Brown and his mother.
Brown was the oldest of three children. He leaves two sisters, Deja Brown, 15, and Mi-Kelle Brown, 1. He also has seven step-siblings, his father said.
For almost an hour, Deja stood staring at her brother's body in silence.
Gospel music played quietly in the background. "There is power in the name of Jesus," one song said. "He will break every chain."
White fabric lined the inside of Brown's casket. The lower half of his body was cloaked in a gold and black metal covering matching the casket. His face, chest and arms were in a clear casing so people could see his body but not touch it.
A collage of photos showed Brown as a young child, a growing teenager and in his graduation cap. A black and white poster had photos of him in a baseball cap, looking blankly with headphones on and smirking at the camera. The poster said, "There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in our hearts."
Two flat-screen TVs played a slide show of photos: Brown in a pool laughing, opening gifts at Christmas, listening to headphones while several woman laughed in a kitchen.
The Rev. Charles Ewing, the late teen's great-uncle, announced at the private viewing that family members will need to wear specially colored wrist bands to enter the family meal after the burial. He said police would escort the family to the church, burial and meal.
"We will get through this," he said.
Just before the viewing was over, Ewing led the family and friends in prayer.
"Help us, Lord, to get through this," he said. "Help us to bind together in the spirit of unity and let peace prevail. Let joy prevail. Let harmony prevail. In the mighty name of Jesus. Oh father God, cover us with your blood and protect each and every one of us as we go to our respective places. Help us, Lord, those who don't know you, to keep our minds stayed on you. For you said you would keep us in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you. …There shall be glory after this."
At about 1:15 p.m., Brown's casket was closed, and a baseball cap that had lain with him in the casket was placed over it.
After the viewing, McSpadden went to a CNN interview, where she met for the first time Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell.
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Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed in 2012 in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood watch volunteer who thought the unarmed youth was suspicious. Sean Bell, 23, also unarmed, died in a hail of 50 police bullets in 2006 while leaving his bachelor party in New York City.
The three mothers embraced and began crying.
"The actual service is going to be the worst day of her life," Fulton told CNN's Don Lemon. "She knows she has to go through a terrible event tomorrow, but I think she knows that God is with her, and that's the most important thing."
Bell and Fulton said they were in Ferguson to offer support and lessons from their own experiences.
Bell told McSpadden: "Keep your head up, and you have to call on us."
Bell told USA TODAY she was happy she could make the trip to Ferguson. Bell learned about Brown's death from someone at her job.
"I don't even watch the news anymore because it's heart-wrenching to hear about young African-American males being killed by police officers," Bell, a hospital accounting clerk, said. "It's like a village here of mothers."