A needed lesson

Published 8:37 am Friday, February 12, 2010

According to The Death Clock, I’m going to die on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2051.

That means I will live to the ripe old age of 76, and I have 41 years left to plan my funeral. Good thing, too, because I keep changing my mind about funerals and the need for them.

The Death Clock, by the way, is a handy little Internet tool that takes your date of birth, mass body index and general outlook on life (normal? pessimistic? optimistic?) and calculates down to the second how much time you have left on Earth. It’s for entertainment purposes only, of course.

When I was younger, I was convinced that funerals were unnecessary. When I did think about death, which wasn’t often, I considered the idea of people gathering to mourn in the typical American tradition unpleasant, expensive and gratuitous.

A public display of grief seemed wasted on a person who wouldn’t even be there to witness it.

“Just cremate me and be done with it,” I told my mother, in case she ever had to deal with my untimely demise. “You can spread my ashes anywhere. I won’t be the wiser.”

Time and more maturity have made me look at funerary customs with a softer eye. Being a journalist means thinking about death at least every time the newspaper is published. We cover events in which people are killed, such as car accidents, house fires and long illnesses. We edit and run obituaries regularly. We even have had to take pictures at funerals of prominent local citizens or those who left us too early.

Recently, we wrote about the funeral of Josh Woods, a local volunteer firefighter who died from a malignant brain tumor.

That story made me think about my earlier distaste for funerals and recall something my husband once told me when we were discussing wills.

“Funerals aren’t for the dead,” he said. “They’re for the people we leave behind.”

Josh Woods wanted a traditional firefighter’s funeral. He made sure his friends and family knew every detail of that funeral and how it would be conducted.

On the day of the funeral, firefighters from as far as Surry and Smithfield dressed in uniforms and came to pay their respects. The fireman’s bell was rung during the service and Josh’s helmet lay atop his casket, reminding funeralgoers of his commitment to the department.

During the procession to the cemetery, Josh’s casket was placed on top of a fire truck, his best friend sitting next to it. Trucks adorned with black ribbons and cars going from the church to the cemetery drove under two raised aerial ladders.

It was a celebration with all the pomp and circumstance that Josh wanted. And it was anything but wasted and gratuitous.

Josh knew that the funeral he imagined wasn’t for him. It wasn’t a greedy preparation. It was a gift to his family and friends … a way to let them remember the strong and kind man he was, not the sick one they had come to know near the end.

And that’s what a funeral should be — a celebration of the life God gave us and how we spent it.

Yes, it’s sad when someone dies. There will always be tears and regret. That’s human. But there can be funny stories and laughter and joy, too.

Thanks, Josh, for that reminder.