A Laurel County church service ended in tragedy Sunday, when an attendee was struck by a large timber rattlesnake.

Linda F. Long, 48, succumbed to the snake’s venom little more than three hours after she was bitten on the cheek.

She was pronounced dead at the University of Kentucky Medical Center at 10:50 p.m. Nov. 5. The snake bite was listed as her official cause of death.

Laurel County Sheriff’s Detective Brad Mitchell is still investigating whether Long was holding the snake when she was attacked.

The incident happened at East London Holiness Church, located on Smith-Brewer Road, off KY 229. Authorities were notified by hospital personnel, after Long was taken to Marymount Medical Center. She was flown from Marymount to UK, where she later died.

It has been confirmed church members were handling the snake as part of the service, Mitchell said. Though Kentucky law defines handling snakes as a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine no less than $50 and not to exceed $100, no criminal charges will be filed, the detective added.

Numerous calls to the church’s former pastor Jerry Holland went unanswered.

Timber rattlesnakes can reach five feet in length, according to Kentucky Snake Identification’s Web site, but are a threatened species. They are venomous, have a distinct head and are usually brown in color, with dark brown or black blotches.

National Geographic News reports religious snake handling, or serpent handling as those that practice it prefer it to be called, is often based in a literal interpretation of numerous verses of scripture, namely Mark 16:17-18, which says, “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.”

Long’s funeral was scheduled to be conducted at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Arney-Mullins Funeral Home in Rose Hill, Va.

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