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March 31, 2018

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.”

Fifty years later, I conducted a graveside funeral at Zion Baptist Church set in the rolling hills of rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, a town located west of Shelby and 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 tractor. The plane flew over, and I saw something fall. A fellow was 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.”

Somewhat skeptical, I asked, “What happened?”

“Well, Oran Pruitt was flying from Winston-Salem to Asheville on a Piedmont twin-engine plane. Witnesses 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 the man here?”

“No, but he died when he hit the ground here in the cemetery. The fellow was buried somewhere else, but the deacons of the church decided to put down the marker.”

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

For the Christian world, the celebration of Easter offers hope beyond the grave.

Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It comes unusually early this year on April 1. The timing of Easter follows the Hebrew lunar calendar.

The fact that Easter and April Fool’s Day coincided this year is an oddity. I am sure there is a juvenile joke or some profound insight to be gleaned from the unusual occurrence, but I have yet to find either.

I was ordained to the ministry on April 1, 1970.  Many comments and jokes have been made about that. I take some comfort from a passage written by the Apostle Paul, “We are fools for Christ.” (I Corinthians 4:10)

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

This year, Jews and Christians observances  of these sacred remembrances overlapped. The eight-day festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the fifteenth through the twenty-second day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year Passover is March 30-April 7, 2018. Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. It is observed by avoiding leaven, and is highlighted by the Seder meals that include retelling the story of the Exodus.

So Passover began on last Friday night and Easter is Sunday.

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 man whose service I conducted last week. However death occurs, we long for it 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 returned to Furman University to celebrate our fortieth class reunion.  At an alumni event on Friday night, a good friend 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 you to read the names of our deceased classmates and offer a prayer.”

I glanced at the list.  I recognized most of the names but 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 late fellow graduates was, “What a tough job!  Class reunions are supposed to be fun.”  I pondered this dilemma.

We arrived early for the dinner the following night.  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, confessing, “This could be a real bummer.”

“Just 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.  One alum’s name had appeared on the list of the dead for the past ten years following the thirtieth reunion.

As the names were being read, a voice in the crowd shouted, “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 saw the notice of his fortieth class reunion and 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 shared the story, we laughed together.  He added, “We always give an award to the person who has traveled the greatest distance to attend our reunion.  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.

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