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An Early Easter

March 17, 2008

The New York Times headline in the Business and Finance Section on Thursday June 14, 1956, read, “MAN FALLS FROM PLANE: Opens Wrong Door; Plunges 6,500 Feet to Death.”

Last Wednesday, I conducted a funeral. The graveside service was at Zion Baptist Church set in the rolling hills of rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, west of Shelby, north of the Broad River.

Following the service, Bob Cabaniss, a lifelong member of the church and the community, said, “Preacher, let me show you something.”

He walked with me to a small granite marker that read:


Fell From Airplane

June 13, 1956

Bob told the story of the fallen man. “I was over yonder on the next hill, running a combine. I saw the plane fly over and saw something fall. A fellow was right down here digging a grave when this man fell out of the sky and landed right at this spot. He didn’t roll or bounce or anything. He just made a sizeable dent in the ground.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, he was flying from Winston-Salem to Asheville on a Piedmont twin-engine plane. They say he needed to go to the bathroom. He just opened the wrong door and the wind sucked him right out of the plane. The worst thing about it was that he was on his honeymoon.’

“Did they bury him here?”

“No, He died when he hit the ground here in the cemetery. The deacons of the church decided to put down the marker. They took the fellow off somewhere else to bury him.”

Easter comes unusually early this year.

Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. So, this year, March 23 will be the earliest Easter most of us will ever see. Unless you are ninety-five years old or older, you missed the last time Easter came this early, 1913.  The next time Easter will be this early will be in the year 2228.

Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover. The Last Supper, shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion, was a Passover meal. The timing of Easter follows the Hebrew lunar calendar. Usually Easter and Passover fall close to each other.

This year, Jews and Christians will celebrate these sacred days nearly a month apart. Most of the Christian world will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on March 23, while Passover will begin at sundown on Saturday, April 19.

In both traditions, the concept of victory over death is a central belief. For Jews, Passover is a remembrance that the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites. They were liberated from bondage. For Christians, Easter celebrates the conquest of death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Death is inevitable for all of us. Sometimes it comes in unusual and shocking ways. It may come as a harsh intruder, as it did for Oran Pruitt. Sometimes death is a gentle blessing, as it was for the woman whose service I conducted last Wednesday. However it occurs, we all long for death to be a transition to a new life. In a very real sense, Easter never arrives early or late. It always comes at the right time.

In October 2006,Clare and I went back to Furman University to celebrate our 40th class reunion.  At an alumni event on Friday night, a good friend who was in charge of the weekend activities handed me a list of names.  Her instructions were, “Since you are a man of the cloth, just before dinner tomorrow night we’d like for you to read the names of our deceased classmates and offer a prayer.”

I glanced at the list.  I recognized almost all of the names and was surprised to learn of some of the deaths.

As Clare and I drove back to Spartanburg that Friday night, my reaction to reading the list of our deceased classmates was, “What a tough job!  Class reunions are supposed to be fun.”

I pondered this dilemma.  We arrived early for the dinner.  In conversation with a physician friend who graduated the year before we had, I expressed my sense of awkwardness about reading the list of the dead.   “This could be a real bummer,” I said.

“Tell them what happened at our reunion last year.” Then he told an incredible story.

The previous year at their class reunion, they, too, paused a moment to remember their deceased classmates.  There was one alum whose name had appeared on the list of the dead for the previous ten years.

As the names were being read, a voice spoke up in the crowd, “Wait a minute!  You read my name, and I am not dead!”

The fellow who spoke from the crowd had mistakenly been counted among the dearly departed.  He had not been reading the alumni news, but when notice came of his 40th class reunion he decided to attend.  To say the least, he was surprised to hear his name read.

He later quoted Mark Twain, “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”

As my physician friend told the story, we laughed together.  He added, “At our reunions, we always give an award to the person who has traveled the greatest distance to attend.  Last year, we gave the award to our resurrected classmate.”

Never too early or too late, Easter always arrives just in the nick of time.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, March 2008

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