This was written in the winter of 1994, the last year that I fought fire with the USFS, and a year that devastated the wildfire community: The South Canyon fire swallowed 14 in one hellish inferno, including my friend Don Mackey. Our Silver City helitack ship went down claiming three more, including my secretary’s nephew, Sean Gutierrez. By the time the snow finally flew, 38 had died fighting fire within a matter of weeks–a ghastly toll in a community of but a few thousand firefighters. And come November, once the snows had stopped the fiery madness, my pastor called…and so began a fateful search for one of my best friends who, with two other USFS employees had failed to return–and would never return–from flying his plane to scout for elk. These things weighed heavily on me, leading me to think of two gravestones that were graven into my past….
Should you wander across the winter whiteness of the dormant grass—grass slumbering beneath the snow; should you wander through this domain of quiet in a small mountain city set beneath the grandeur of distant peaks; should you know just where to look, then once, and once again, you might bend down and sweep the snow from the tarnished bronze and glassy granite, and read the words engraved upon these gently aging stones.
Years have passed since those two stones were set in place to remember those whose graves they mark: years which dim the sorrow, but not the message. Indeed, the message now echoes all the more strongly as the reminders of this year (1994) litter my desk: fatality reports, OSHA notices, a faded purple ribbon; the black band of mourning. The legacy of the tragic year just passed renews the pangs of sorrow and aching grief. It was a year that brought a relentless litany of loss to the fire community and the Forest Service in particular. Even when winter’s return ended the western fires, other accidents and tragedies stalked our peers, our friends, our families.
There seemed to be no surcease from sorrow.
Yet it is that very sense of sorrow that brings the tale of two headstones to mind: headstones that lay separated by only a few feet of space and a few months of time, yet are linked by the subtle brotherhood of those brave few who served; who bore the badge and title of peace officer.
This honored role is noted upon the younger stone: “an officer and a gentleman” it intones, and quite rightly so, for the one remembered served his community long and well through medicine and law. Those few words summarize so well the life that proved so brief. Mark well that life, for there is much to be honored. Yet note, too, that the words look only backward—the letters so clearly incised in the granite offer neither hope nor life.
Walk then to the other stone, adorned with badge, name, dates, and the words that offer more; so very much more: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” There in this microcosm of mortality blaze forth these words: words of life, words of hope, words of assurance; words that cry out of the greatest love known to man.
This is a miracle. This stone not only talks, but for the Christian it becomes transparent. For eternity lies beyond the granite, and for those whose faith is in Him, the grave is a passage, not an end; a passage to glory undreamed of by those who yet live.
Yet cast your mind back to those days when the loss was still fresh; when sorrow rolled over your soul and blinding tears flooded your eyes as the bitter reality of a brother or sister in Christ being gone struck home. Why such sorrow? Why such grief, if we truly know that they’ve gone on to worship the living God? Is there not some deep contradiction in our faith, that we mourn and sorrow?
Truly, there is no contradiction, for that sorrow springs from the grim residue of Eden; the fallout of fallen man. Death is not only an unwanted visitor, it was never meant to be. We mourn, we weep, for deep in our hearts we know that such separation should never have come to be among men.
Yet even in our loss we see the promise, the promise echoed on that second stone: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yes, earthly parting rends hearts; yes, the grief is merciless. Yet for those who claim Christ, the joy overwhelms the sorrow. Where grief is merciless, God is merciful, if we continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope that is held out in the Gospel. “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blame and free from accusation!” What a blessing, what true glory it is, to gaze through the granite to the One to come, to eternity at the foot of the One who first loved us!
There is a second story to the second stone, for it marks the grave of Officer William Harding Murie, Arizona DPS Badge no. 721, End of Watch, November 19, 1980. It was there, from the far edges of a huge mourning crowd, that I first glimpsed a woman; a woman silhouetted against the walnut of the casket; bracketed on either side by an impossibly small child; a woman bereaved and bereft…who three years later became my wife. It seems that life may come from death not only in the hereafter, but in the here and now-but that would be another story….