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ATLANTA — In place of caskets, three black-framed portraits sat at the front of the church. On the right was 20-year-old Erin Edwards, a rising junior at Boston University, practically sparkling, her long hair parted to the side. On the left was Christopher Edwards II, a 24-year-old aspiring sports reporter, dressed sharply in a gray suit jacket and white button-down shirt. And in the center, directly below the pulpit and surrounded by three enormous bouquets of white flowers, was Dr. Marsha Edwards, 58, beaming. She was Chris and Erin’s accomplished, devoted mother, and also, police say, their killer.

It is not often that the victims of a crime and its perpetrator are mourned at the same funeral, but in Atlanta last week, a rattled community grieved for Dr. Edwards alongside her children, speaking of her as another victim of the apparent murder-suicide that took all three lives. As they paid their last respects, relatives, friends, and acquaintances grappled to reconcile the terrible act of brutality with the tight-knit, well-heeled family they knew.

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“The reality is we live in a world where there is the presence of violence,” the Rev. Dr. Walter L. Kimbrough told the hundreds who crowded into the pews at Cascade United Methodist Church. “We don’t know the answer to the why question.”

That is the question that persists, nonetheless.

Even in a world where there is the presence of violence — where mass shootings no longer shake us as deeply as they should — the crime still stunned. It was difficult even to comprehend. Edwards had raised Chris and Erin, loved them, encouraged them, worried about them, and exulted in their triumphs, large and small, like any good mother would.

It was there for everyone to see, especially on social media. Erin had recently written that Marsha was “the best mother of all time.” And so the deaths left the unsettling sense that perhaps you can’t trust what you see with your own eyes. Because from the outside, the family seemed to be successful, loving, content.

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“You have these two narratives that exist on different sides of the aisle now. And it’s hard to figure out — where do you lie?” said Archelle Thelemaque, a junior at BU who was a close friend of Erin’s and part of the Posse Foundation scholarship program with her. About Erin’s mother, she wondered, “Do you hate her because of what happened? Or do you remember the type of person that she was before?”

BU student Derrick Lottie Jr. was comforted by the pastor, Kevin Murriel, as he and Maya Foreman spoke about their friend Erin Edwards during the service at Cascade United Methodist Church.
BU student Derrick Lottie Jr. was comforted by the pastor, Kevin Murriel, as he and Maya Foreman spoke about their friend Erin Edwards during the service at Cascade United Methodist Church. Jon-Michael Sullivan for The Boston Globe

A week before the Wednesday service, Erin was supposed to be on a flight back to Boston to lead a first-year student outreach project at BU. Chris was supposed to be at the Atlanta mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment, where he worked. But neither showed up, and Dr. Christopher Edwards, their father and Marsha’s ex-husband, was unable to reach them by phone. Concerned, he asked a relative to call the police for a welfare check, according to Jeffrey Dickerson, a spokesman for the family. When police arrived at Marsha’s home that evening, they found three bodies.

In a statement the next day and in the official report, police said Marsha fatally shot Chris and Erin before turning the gun on herself. They did not offer evidence explaining why they believed Marsha was the primary suspect, and they declined to comment further. Through a spokesperson, Dr. Christopher Edwards declined to comment for this story.

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Without any real answers, close friends and strangers alike parsed the awful details, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

Marsha had just gotten back from Italy with Erin; she had posted on Instagram about the best gelato in the world, the vineyards in Tuscany. Was she struggling with depression that whole time? She had a medical degree and founded her own medical equipment business; she volunteered with the Atlanta chapter of Jack and Jill, a group of mothers who organize programs for kids.

“What would make her to do that?” asked Andre Gibson, who has known Dr. Christopher Edwards’ family for more than 50 years. “We stopped speculating because we really don’t know what was going on inside her mind.”

Gibson gathered with other high school friends of Christopher Edwards in the balcony hours before the memorial service began; they pinned white carnations to their lapels. They had grown up with Edwards, had known his parents, had seen his career as an orthopedic surgeon take off, had met his children. And still, they were utterly bewildered.

At a regular church service at Cascade after the killings, the pastor, Kevin Murriel, seemed to suggest one possible explanation. Though he did not tie his sermon directly to the deaths, he gave a rousing sermon on mental health, a topic he said was often taboo in the black church. Marsha Edwards loomed large in the sanctuary.

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“After we shout and after we praise, with our saved, sanctified, and holy-ghost filled selves, many of us sit quietly and suffer in silence,” Murriel told the congregation. Perhaps alluding to Marsha’s gleaming social media persona, he added, “But your Facebook profile says something totally different.”

The home where the killings occurred, a four-story townhouse in a placid gated community in the Vinings suburb of Atlanta, also appeared picturesque. Crickets hum; Mercedes and BMWs are clustered near neat green lawns. Marsha bought the house in 2016, according to public records. She had a strained relationship with her next-door neighbor, Rebecca Cartall, and her daughters; Cartall described her as a “very, very unhappy, very unpleasant woman.” But that impression does not square with statements from Marsha’s friends and relatives, who said she was an engaged, cherished member of the community.

Members of the Camilla Rose Chapter of the Links, a service organization for professional black women in Atlanta, spoke at the memorial about “our beloved Marsha.” Terri Porter, who described herself as Marsha’s best friend, having grown up with her in Baton Rouge, La., told those at the memorial that “Marsha was, hands down, one of the best mothers I knew,” adding, “Marsha and Erin were inseparable.”

Mourners comforted each other at a memorial for BU student Erin Edwards, her brother, and mother.
Mourners comforted each other at a memorial for BU student Erin Edwards, her brother, and mother. Jon-Michael Sullivan for The Boston Globe

After the police removed evidence from the home, and a company called Aftermath scrubbed the floors, the house sat silent last week. A silver Lexus SUV and a gray Ford SUV were parked in the driveway, each adorned with a sticker for Woodward Academy, the elite private high school from which Erin and Chris graduated. The blinds of the house were drawn.

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Neither the family nor the police have publicly offered any motivation for the murders. Marsha’s siblings declined interviews, but others who witnessed the family from afar described her as a particularly devoted mother.

“She did everything with her children, everything,” said Brenda Edwards, an aunt by marriage to Erin and Chris. “She stayed home, raised their kids. She even helped me out with my children.”

She was protective, maybe almost to a fault. Once, when Erin was at BU, she mentioned to her mother that she was planning to take the bus to New York City for the weekend, said Thelemaque, Erin’s friend.

“Her mom’s like, ‘I’m not going to let you take a bus. What if something happens to you?’ ” Thelemaque recalled.

On social media, Marsha presented herself as a mother who adored her children and delighted in their accomplishments. In June, she posted a photo of herself with her arms around them, captioned, “Sending birthday wishes to my June Blessings. #mybestguy #mybestgirl.” In an Instagram post time-stamped Aug. 21, the day the police found the bodies, Marsha wrote: “I’ve had the best summer, first with Chris in Miami, and Erin in Italy. I could not ask for better children.”

And her children seemed to love their mother fiercely in return. In April, Erin posted on Facebook about an award her mother was receiving. “I could not be more proud of my mother,” she wrote, describing her as “the hardest working person I know, and the best mother of all time.”

Christopher and Marsha Edwards divorced in 2012, but to some onlookers they seemed to remain on good terms. During Erin’s freshman year at BU, they came to visit Boston together and took Erin and friends out to a fancy meal in the North End, according to Thelemaque.

“When we went out to dinner, they were very friendly with each other,” Thelemaque said.

Court records offer more details about the marriage. In 2000, Christopher Edwards filed for divorce, and the court granted his request in 2002, records show. But in 2007, the couple returned to court and requested that the divorce judgment be set aside, saying they reconciled shortly after their divorce was finalized and had been living together as husband and wife. A judge granted the request, records show, but five years later the couple divorced again. Christopher Edwards now has a significant other, his spokesman confirmed.

In the aftermath of the deaths, people whispered and wondered and prayed and wept. A few talked about ever-present violence in the world. Others spoke of eternal life, and the Lord’s wisdom. Why had it happened? What hadn’t they understood?

In the end, many were left only with scattered facts and images, a puzzle defined by its missing pieces. How Chris sometimes stayed up all night playing video games. How Erin was elated when she had her first story on the front page of the college paper. The portraits. The gunshots. An empty house, two cars still in the driveway.

A video, which Thelemaque shared with the Globe, shows Erin sitting in a student center at BU, wearing a T-shirt that says “Black Girls are the Purest Form of Art.” She is lip-syncing to a Jill Scott song, and then, after a few seconds, she stands up and begins to dance in earnest, throwing her arms up, tossing her black curls.

Dr. Christopher Edwards (above) tried to reach his son and daughter on Aug. 21. Police later found them dead along with their mother.
Dr. Christopher Edwards (above) tried to reach his son and daughter on Aug. 21. Police later found them dead along with their mother.Jon-Michael Sullivan for The Boston Globe

Laura Crimaldi and Hanna Krueger of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.