While most of you are probably more familiar with me as Jaclyn of Jac & Elsie, my jewelry shop is more of a hobby. For my day job — the job that pays the bulk of my bills, the job I went to school for — I am a features reporter at a daily newspaper.
I chose to go into features in lieu of news for many, many reason — my hours are mostly 9-to-5 (no in-the-dead-of-the-night car crashes for this gal) and I don’t have to deal with politicians, police or deaths. No, a “deadline” story for me might be to go cover a press conference where the local ballet announces its new season. Very different from the latest homicide.
Well, we all know what is happening to the newspaper industry, and as employees are running away from their newspaper jobs as fast as possible, most of those vacant positions are not being filled. Which means our features staff is left to help cover the weekend shift.
Which is mostly simple events — a Lego convention, or a pet walk. But not always.
Saturday, after 7 1/2 years as a professional journalist, I covered my first funeral.
The man was 26 years old, a volunteer fire fighter. He received a call about a brush fire and, on the way to extinguish it, flipped his truck. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and he was ejected from the truck and pinned beneath it.
The man was a husband, and a dad, with a 1-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. His funeral was attended by nearly 1,000 people — when a service person dies, other service people from all around send representatives to show support. Which means there were EMS techs, police officers, fire fighters and more from all over region in attendance.
When I was in high school writing for the high school newspaper, and when I was a college journalism student, I looked at the folks who had to write about deaths with a mixture of pity and, I’m sorry to say, disdain. A funeral is a private time. Being a reporter who has to talk to those who loved the deceased … I couldn’t imagine anything more horrific. Grief is a private thing, and I judged newspapers for making grief public.
Because this was a high-profile instance, I did not have to talk to loved ones. The fire fighter’s wife held a press conference last week, and we’d written nearly a half a dozen other stories on the death. No, I was there to paint a picture, to describe a scene.
I have a technique for reporting on sad things. I assume all reporters have something that keeps them from sobbing hysterically while on the job, and mine works well: I sing rap to myself. When I feel myself about to lose it while I’m working, Ludacris starts playing: “I wanna li- li- li- lick you from your head to your toes.” Don’t misunderstand this as disrespectful, please. The tears can come when I’m not on the job. When I AM on the job, it’s all-Luda, all the time.
And I did a good job of not crying at the funeral.
It was at the cemetery that I lost it, along with the other near 1,000-people in attendance. Over a police scanner, amid the crackles and beeps and static, a voice gave the final call for the fire fighter.
“He has gone home. May he rest in peace.”
Cue tears, from everyone. It was like surround-sound sniffling. I had no tissues, just my gloves, which were crusty by the time I got back to work (I washed them last night).
Yes, it was a difficult assignment to cover. Not because it was hard to report, or hard to write. But because I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger, and as a stranger, that my tears were somehow offensive. Who am I to cry for this husband and father and friend and son and brother? I’d never met this man. Who am I to attend his funeral? To listen to people who loved him tell stories about him and remember him?
This story ran yesterday, and when I read it in the paper, I felt good. I did a service — I taught the community about this man who regularly put his life in danger to help others. I introduced him to people he’d never met, and likely never would have met, even if he had lived to 98.
I hope I did him right.