When Fran Buhler was in junior high school, his father asked to meet him after school. There was no such thing as a text message back in those days, so he told him the old-fashioned way.
“He was doing a funeral for a homeless man, and the sheriff’s department said he needed to have one witness,’’ Buhler said.
It was the first of many funerals Buhler watched his father officiate over the years. Allen Buhler was a Baptist preacher in Lebanon, Tennessee. In more than 50 years in the ministry, he delivered more than 1,300 eulogies.
Death does not discriminate. It claims the young and stalks the old. It calls home the rich and poor, short and tall, blessed and cursed.
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Fran Buhler later grieved the loss of a high school basketball teammate, who was killed in an automobile accident. In college, a teammate on the football team also lost his life in a car wreck. Buhler attended the funerals of aunts and uncles and spoke at the memorials for his grandparents. He watched people pack churches and funeral homes to pay their respects. He went to graveside services at country cemeteries.
Twenty-five years ago, Buhler left a long career in marketing and business and became an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida.
His first funeral was that of a young wife and mother who died of cancer. Her family, while buoyed by faith, was shaken with grief. It was heartbreaking.
He retired four years ago but still is asked to do funerals. On Aug. 18, Buhler reached his milestone 800th funeral … not that anyone is keeping score. The woman’s service was more a celebration of life than mourning of death. She was 111 years old.
On Sept. 1 at 1 p.m., Buhler will speak at Bonaire United Methodist Church. But not at a funeral. For many of the folks who will be attending, the funerals took place weeks, months and years ago.
Buhler, 78, is the author of “The Grief Letter,’’ which was published in February. He calls the book a gift for “hurting hearts and sorrow-torn spirits.’’
It’s a guide to get through tough holidays, sad anniversaries and other touchstone events. It’s a tool box for grief professionals such as pastors, social workers, hospice care personnel and others who deal with death and end-of-life issues.
“The Grief Letter’’ is an expansion of the personal letters of hope and encouragement Buhler often sent to people following the death of someone close to them.
The event is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by local chapters of Compassionate Friends and GriefShare. Compassionate Friends is the largest self-help bereavement organization in the world. (The Middle Georgia chapter was started in 1980.)
“I’m not coming to promote the book or make money selling it,’’ Buhler said. “I want to reach people who are suffering or struggling with grief. It is not something to hide from or run away from. Grief is a strength, not a weakness.’’
He is appearing in Bonaire at the invitation of James “Sully” Sullivent and his wife, Melva. Their two youngest daughters, 17-year-old Leslie and 11-year-old Bridget, were killed in a two-car accident on Ga. 96 on a drizzly night in 2011.
Leslie was a junior at Veterans High School, and Bridget was in the sixth grade at Mossy Creek Middle School. They both were outstanding athletes in softball and soccer.
They were returning home from Bonaire United Methodist Church, where they had attended an Ash Wednesday service. They had ash marks on their foreheads, a sign of the cross. Their Bibles were in the seat.
“So many people have lost a loved one or experience grief on some level,’’ said Melva, a technology services administrator with Bibb County schools. “Sometimes it can be that one thing you hear that makes a difference. We hope that families will be comforted by his words and begin or continue to heal and have their spirit lifted as Fran shares his experiences and offers support.
“Others will gain a better understanding of a grieving heart and how to offer support to a family member or friend. And, if the day allows, we will be able to smile, possibly laugh, and get a glimpse of joy.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.