Doing Good vs Doing Nothing: Lessons From a Firefighter’s Funeral

When your loved one dies, it’s natural to feel anger and regret. In some ways, the only thing left for you is to do something good in their memory. That doesn’t mean celebrating as though they haven’t passed away; rather it means looking at yourself with a keen eye and assessing what needs doing until your last breath..

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by James “Uncle Buzz” Surwilo. 

Justin Beebe, a 26-year-old Vermont native from the hardscrabble village of Bellows Falls, was killed. As a first-year member of the elite Lolo Interagency Hotshot Crew, he was murdered battling wildfires in Nevada a few weeks ago.

I had never met Justin and knew nothing about him when I first learned of his death through the state’s Fire Supervisor, who I had previously worked for. I felt a twofold affinity as a sometimes-wildland-firefighter and a Vermont citizen. I too have a 26-year-old Vermont native son who, like Justin, came west to chase his aspirations and who, like Justin, has a girlfriend he adores. The resemblance gnawed at me, another reminder of life’s frailty. Doug, my son from California, was just in Vermont a week ago. We said our goodbyes casually at the airport as he departed, certain that we’d see one other again at Christmas or in the spring. But learning of Justin’s death proved that nothing is definite in this life, and youth is no guarantee against death.

I started considering attending Justin’s memorial ceremony out of a wish to pay tribute to a colleague. But you know how it goes with these kinds of decisions: I have no personal ties to this guy, it’ll take an hour and a half to get there, there will be plenty of other firemen present, and the lawn needs mowing. Is it strange to want to go?

But in the end, I chose to go.

With the overflow throng in the neighboring gymnasium, the high school auditorium was crowded, airless, and sweltering hot. The front and center seats were taken by Justin’s family, with a dozen or so members of the Montana-based hotshot team to the front and side. We, along with another 30 or 40 wildland firefighters from four states and numerous federal agencies, filed in behind the Lolo team in single line. Off to the side, scores more structural firemen arrived, who, to their credit, stood at attention for the hour-plus service despite the sweltering heat.

The audience heard from eight different instructors, friends, family members, and the hotshot crew leader. Each one testified of Justin’s goodness, vigor, leadership, and friendliness to people from all walks of life, ostensibly without confirmation. Almost every speaker reaffirmed Justin’s love of the outdoors and, more importantly, his steadfast pursuit of his hobbies, which struck a chord with me. We heard time and time again that no task was too difficult for Justin if he really desired the goal. I’m sure I’ve pulled out of a lot of projects, either persuading myself or others of our unworthiness, or being naively dissuaded by critics. So hearing about a young guy who went all out in life, but not at the cost or exclusion of others, was inspiring. Almost every speaker, including myself, emphasized the need of learning this moral perseverance.

Justin’s closest friend, aunt, fiancée, and mother all spoke from the heart with incredibly moving eloquence and frequently hilarious wit. Coming from someone who feels nervous speaking to a group of 25 people on a repetitive, boring topic, it seemed astounding that these grieving folks could find it in themselves to truly express their grief on stage in front of over a thousand strangers. And, with their loss so fresh and raw, to witness a touching slide exhibition of Justin as a newborn, a sports addict, and a hotshot crew member. I’m not sure I could have done it, and I’m in awe of them all; it’s an act of courage that rivals any firefighter’s.

 

Rather of doing nothing, do good.

I read an article called “Always Go to the Funeral” a decade ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. The author’s compelling argument, as shown by her father’s deeds, is that we should make an attempt to stretch ourselves or put ourselves in unpleasant circumstances for the sake of others. Such possibilities for a nice deed may never arise again, and a seemingly little action, such as just being there, may be difficult, inconvenient, but may have a lasting influence. It’s always preferable to do something than to avoid doing anything:

“I believe in attending funerals on a regular basis. ‘Always go to the funeral,’ my father told me, meaning that I have to do the right thing even if I don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of that whenever I have the opportunity to make a tiny gesture, but I don’t have to and certainly don’t want to. I’m referring to those things that are merely a little annoyance to me, but mean the world to the other person. You know, the birthday celebration that was tragically under-attended. Visiting the hospital at happy hour. A shiva call was made for one of my ex-relatives. boyfriend’s The everyday conflict in my mundane existence hasn’t been good vs evil. It’s not quite as epic. My daily conflict is usually between doing good and doing nothing.”

It was definitely not a heroic move on my part to attend Justin’s funeral; he is the true hero in this story. It wasn’t even a very notable “good act.” Going was, nevertheless, a better option than not going. I’m delighted I could lend my voice to the chorus of witnesses who testified that Justin’s life mattered.

After the funeral, Justin’s sister walked out to the line of wildland firefighters along the sidewalk to respectfully thank us for coming, as overwhelming as the day must have been. She had buried her brother two weeks ago and had just spent the previous hour having those wounds reopened, and she had the good grace to recognize our presence and work. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had avoided the incident and not been in line, but it would have mattered if all 40 firemen or 1,000 civilians had. My presence was little on its own, but I hope our presence as a group provided some comfort.

It probably benefited us more than those who were on the receiving end of the gesture, as is the case with many excellent decisions. Justin’s life of choosing to do good rather doing nothing has undoubtedly encouraged me to do more good. While I continue to let such opportunities pass me by, owing to my introversion and social ineptness, I’ve begun to remind myself more often of that simple but vital maxim: “Always go to the funeral.”