Have you ever been to a firefighter’s funeral?
Until Saturday, I had not. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget – for many reasons.
I attended a funeral in rural Iowa Saturday morning. The deceased was well known in his community – he was the mail man, a city councilman, a member of his church council, and chief of the volunteer fire department. He was also a son, husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle and friend. He was not taken in the line of duty, but rather fought a long, hard battle with cancer.
We sat and watched as the firefighters from his town filed in with their families. Then firefighter representatives from towns in 3 counties filed in and stood along the walls of the packed church. The family filed in, his widow and children, her family, and then his parents and eight remaining brothers and sisters and their families. A soloist sang “You Never Walk Alone”, her voice static with emotion. The widow’s sister-in-law stood to offer remembrance written by her husband. She had to stop a few times to gather herself and continue. The minister gave the eulogy, with the occasional emotional break in his voice as he told of his friendship. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
The firefighters filed out before the casket, the family after. We went to our cars to follow the procession to the cemetery. The hearse led the way, escorted by a police car, police cars blocked all of the intersections. Behind the hearse and the family vehicles, emergency vehicles from at least 10 different towns fell in line with their lights and sirens running. The rest of the cars from the procession followed. The hearse was already at the cemetery when the last car pulled away from the church. As we all walked through the cold biting wind to the graveside, the fire trucks lined up on the road outside the cemetery. We all stood in silence, straining to hear the minister over the roar of the wind. As he finished, a firefighter tolled the bell on one truck three times. Everyone began to file away to their vehicles. At once there was a loud wail as all of the trucks blasted their air horns simultaneously for a full minute, offering their final farewell to one of their own. It’s the most mournful haunting sound I’ve ever heard, and when you hear it for the first time…it shakes you to your very core.
But this isn’t just a story about a firefighter’s funeral. This is a story about yet another young life taken too soon by cancer. No parent should ever have to bury their child. This young man’s parents have buried two in the last six months. The fire chief’s younger sister succumbed to cancer herself, in December. He was the only sibling unable to make her funeral – he was undergoing treatment and battling cancer himself at the time. Two gone, too soon.