Go To The Funeral

Brian Brush shares a timely reminder before the San Francisco funerals.

The following is from Brian Brush, from a friend of his in the Denver area.
If you’re “in the job” then realize that this is part of “the job.”

What, You Have Something Better to Do?
By Oren Bersagel-Briese
November 12, 2004

I don’t understand the fire service sometimes. Yesterday, I attended a line-of-duty death funeral for a brother firefighter who died because of a vicious, quick acting lung cancer that he contracted while on the line. Seven months ago, he was still working in a fire station; and yesterday, he was buried.

Nearly 30 fire engines of various size and shape, along with close to 500 firefighters from across our metro area attended the funeral and gave a grand send-off for a man who served the citizens of his city and our profession since 1973. I thought that the procession was nice and the funeral fitting…the part that I am having trouble with, is that there was ONLY 500 firefighters there with ONLY 30 departments represented by an engine.

This is the second non-traumatic line-of-duty death funeral that I have been to in the past six months. Both times, an alphanumeric page and e-mail has gone out to every member of my department – roughly 70 firefighters – and both times, we have had a hard time filling the engine with four people. Are you kidding me?! I am still waiting for all of the phone calls to come in and have to turn people down from the honor of riding in the procession with us for not calling back quick enough.

Brotherhood…it’s a word that I have heard used a lot in recent years. Television shows have talked about it, books have been written about it, a movie has been made with that as it’s title, and firefighters and fire departments across our country pretend to have it. I use the word ‘pretend’ because there were thousands of firefighters who had something better to do than attend a funeral yesterday. What, did the part-time job get in the way? Did the lawn need to be mowed? How about that fence? Does that tile job look good enough? I sure hope so, because a brother of yours died doing a profession that we all love, and yet you didn’t find the time to show him and his family the proper respect and gratitude by coming to the funeral.

Donald R. Hekkers was his name. Have you ever heard of him? Me neither…not until yesterday. Donald joined the fire service in 1973 after a stint in the military. In 1979 he attended paramedic school and then helped his department implement an ALS program in the early 80s. In 1983, he was promoted to Lieutenant and that is where he stayed until an unfortunate diagnosis a few short months ago. Donald was 54 and leaved behind a good family.

Here is a guy that spend more of his life in the fire service than out of it, changed the way that his department delivered EMS to nearly 500,000 people, and you didn’t even find the time between the concrete and the football game to come and honor him. He has probably been in the fire service three times longer that you have! Do me a favor and stop using the word ‘brotherhood.’ It angers me that not every single firefighter within a few hour radius was there, and it bothers me that these same people want to preach to the rest of society how close we are as a fire service family. At the funeral six months ago, there were more firefighters from FDNY there than there were from my department. And we are not within 2,000 miles of New York City.

How do we fix this problem? I don’t know the large scale solution, but I can tell you that it lies right in the lap of what we deem as important as an organization. A fellow firefighter was telling me about the department that he used to belong. When he joined as a volunteer, the first thing that they issued him – BEFORE t-shirts, patches, belts, car stickers, boots, hats, or even bunker gear – was his Class-A uniform. The instructions that followed? “If any member of our fire department or any surrounding jurisdiction – active, retired, line-of-duty, or not – dies while you are a member; you will be expected to be there wearing this uniform to show appropriate respect to that firefighter and their family.”…you can see very clearly what is important.

In those instructions, there was no mention of “if you can make it off of work,” or “ if you can find the time.” Simple expectation, because that is what is important to that department – each other. Find the time in your department to emphasize the importance of attending a brother or sister’s funeral. Find the time to make that a priority in your area by sending people and a fire truck. It isn’t enough that your department is represented…you need to be there. Then we can start talking about brotherhood again.

Since writing this piece, I found a very similar article on the NPR web site, and instead of hacking it up and incorporating it into my thoughts; I have simply reprinted it below in it’s entirety.

Always Go to the Funeral
By Deirdre Sullivan
All Things Considered, August 8, 2005

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get our of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. “Dee,” he said, “you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, “Sorry about all this,” and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”

Sounds simple – when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold, April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

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