Decency commands that the sun should not shine too brightly and that the sky should not cast its endless shade of summer blue on a day such as this — a day when a child is buried.
But Megan Brittain refused to allow cancer to dampen her spirit, and those who came to mourn her death fought to follow the lead of a 12-year-old girl who had clutched the hearts of a community.
The Rev. Joel Thrasher, a longtime friend of the Brittain family and first to speak at Megan's funeral, echoed the thoughts of those who couldn't understand how a little girl and her family could be forced to endure so much.
"Why?" Thrasher said, in a voice thick with emotion that quickly spilled out in tears. "Why her? Why them? Why now? Really, there are no adequate answers. So today, we'll focus on who.
"Once upon a time there was a girl named Megan Elizabeth Brittain who was born wide-open and full throttle."
Though the words themselves change in the telling, all who knew Megan remember a child who was headstrong and direct, a fun-loving practical joker, who cared for others more than she worried about herself.
Calli Boyles was Megan's best friend.
"She just had a spirit for other people," says the 13-year-old. "When Megan found out she was gonna die, she was worried about how I'd feel. Even after she got sick, her personality never changed."
And neither did her tomboy nature. Diagnosed in 2007, six months after her mother, Sharon, died from breast cancer, Megan was forced to be more careful. So, rather than playing tackle football, she switched to two-hand touch.
As much as she loved sports, the one thing she enjoyed even more was practical jokes. Only days before she drew her final breath Tuesday at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Megan would pretend to be asleep, drawing nurses and doctors, friends and family close before rising up and showering them with cans of string-like foam.
"She was very mischievous," says Phyllis Boudousquie, Megan's sixth-grade teacher at Kitty Stone Elementary. "She was always into something."
When it became apparent Megan wasn't going to make it back for sixth-grade graduation, Boudousquie, along with the rest of the sixth-grade teachers, traveled to Birmingham. With "Pomp and Circumstance" playing from a portable CD player, the teachers and nurses marched single file into Megan's room to deliver her diploma.
"And she was Megan being Megan," Boudousquie says. "She was doing whatever it took to make you smile."
'It was her mission'
On graduation day, with Megan lying in a hospital bed in Birmingham, when her name was called, the crowd of mothers and fathers, little sisters and big brothers erupted into applause. Those unaware of Megan's condition stood a bit taller, hoping to watch her walk across the stage. Instead, there was an empty chair among her classmates decorated with a blue ribbon.
Though she couldn't attend, her presence was felt that day as it will be for countless days to come.
"She faced this challenge and rose to the occasion with incredible grace," says former Kitty Stone principal Bob Phillips. "She taught me more about life and death than anyone I've ever known."
Megan's impact reached beyond Kitty Stone. Her name has become a call to arms, appearing on T-shirts and signs swaying in the front lawns of homes across Calhoun County. She's been in TV commercials for Relay for Life and featured in posters for the Red Cross. Everyone, it seemed, was a member of Team Megan.
"She liked the attention, even back when we were little," Calli says, laughing at an untold memory. "And she loved helping people. This way she got to do both."
Megan was more than a sad story about a little girl with cancer. She wasn't simply an inspiration for others. Megan was an advocate.
"It was her mission," says Chrissy Werner, account manager for the Alabama Gulf Coast Region of the American Red Cross. "And she refused to quit."
Sick from the chemo treatments and too exhausted to speak, Megan could still be found sitting at ball games with a jar in her lap, collecting donations.
Megan and her father, Gary, knew the frustration of waiting for hours to get a blood transfusion, which is why she worked so hard — in hopes that other children wouldn't find themselves in her position.
Her efforts paid off. Given that a single pint of donated blood can save a life, Werner says that through the blood drives hosted in her honor, Megan saved the lives of 5,469 people.
But she didn't do it alone. Boudousquie knows where Megan found the will to carry on.
"It's that family — Gary, Megan, Ian and Bradley," she says. "They're all just an amazingly strong and courageous group of people. That's where Megan got it from."
But why Megan?
Cancer claims the lives of thousands of children every year — their names remain unknown, their faces unfamiliar. As special as she was, how was Megan able to galvanize an entire community, raising awareness for both cancer research and the need for blood donations?
Those who knew her best say it was simply her nature — Megan being Megan. Calli has a different perspective.
"I really think it started with Mrs. Sharon," she says softly. "Megan saw what her mom went through and all the things she did to help others. When she died, Megan took over.
"God did this for a reason. It's hard, but there was a reason."
Though Megan died, her legacy will endure. The Red Cross designated her birthday, Sept. 15, as Megan Brittain Day. And, in addition to hosting an annual blood drive on or around that day, Kitty Stone's Relay for Life team will forever be known as Team Megan.
"She'll always be an advocate," Werner says. "Megan started something, and now it's our responsibility to carry on. Her mission was to help other children and they are all around us, going through the same things. It's because of them that we'll never forget Megan."
There are no answers that can make sense of the sorrow in a child's death. "Answers," says David Byrd, who also spoke during the funeral, "do not mend broken hearts." And while that is true, there is an answer to the question of how this 12-year-old girl inspired a community.
It was simply Megan being Megan.
For those interested in hosting a blood drive in memory of Megan Brittain, contact Crissy Werner at firstname.lastname@example.org.