We lost Elliot Ranzinger on Saturday afternoon, May 13, 2017, just after he finished his freshman year at Southern Adventist University. He was only 19 years old. But even in the midst of such a terrible tragedy, God gave Elliott’s family an amazing gift to comfort them.
About a week before Elliott passed away in a motorcycle accident, our planned giving team was looking through some files and found a certificate from 1999 for three burial plots at Collegedale Cemetery that a donor had given to the university. They had been set aside, and years later we still had no immediate use for them.
At staff worship on Monday we prayed that in the midst of the Ranzingers’ worst moments, God would make His presence known to them. On Tuesday we learned that Mark and Ruth, Elliott’s parents, wanted their son to be buried on Southern’s campus. He had loved Southern so much, and had made such close friends that they felt it was where he should stay.
That’s when Carolyn Liers, our planned giving coordinator, wondered whether the Ranzingers could use one of the burial sites we already had.
Our chaplain’s office contacted the family and offered them one of the burial plots. But the Ranzingers declined, saying they had particular desires: they wanted Elliott to be buried under a tree on top of a hill where the sunlight would shine down on his resting place. They wanted a shaded place where his family and friends could sit when they came to visit.
They wanted Elliott to be buried under a tree on top of a hill where the sunlight would shine down on his resting place.
Thinking that it might be possible to trade our plots with the cemetery for what the Ranzingers wanted, I went to the cemetery Wednesday morning. As I spoke to the cemetery manager the Ranzinger family arrived to finalize on a location for Elliott that matched what they had in mind. My heart sank when the manager told them that very few spots were still available.
Still, I suggested that we look throughout the cemetery at the plots Southern owned. The manager led us as we zigzagged across the hills and past the grave markers in the older section of the cemetery until we reached the spot where the three plots were located.
We were standing on the crest of the cemetery’s largest hill. Above us floated the lofty limbs of a Bradford pear tree. Beautiful sunlight shone on our skin. Birds sang their soft tunes as if to comfort the tragically impacted group.
I looked at Ruth, Elliott’s mother, and tears began to trail down our faces as we embraced each other. The plot was exactly what they wanted. The plot had been purchased long ago. The university had received it 18 years earlier, a year after Elliott was born.
Elliott’s casket was made by Kamron Stock, an alumnus of Southern Adventist University and friend of the family, along with Kamron’s brother; Elliott’s father, Mark; and Elliott’s brother, Andrew.
When Elliott’s parents went in search of a casket, they struggled to find one that adequately represented Elliott. With their shiny, polished exteriors and fancy molding, none of the caskets they saw matched Elliott’s unsanded personality. Elliott enjoyed the outdoors, as well as mechanical hobbies, and his family felt he should have a casket that matched his personality.
Mark Ranzinger, Elliott’s father, wanted the casket to stay rough and unsanded to match his son’s interests and hobbies. But Andrew, Elliott’s brother, wanted a smoother, more polished casket to reflect his brother’s kind, giving heart. Ultimately, the casket came to reflect both aspects of Elliott’s character, with a sanded inside and a rough exterior.
Building the casket took three days to complete. Kamron said it would have been impossible to complete alone. He said they were building a treasure chest for someone’s treasure.
On Saturday they held a memorial service before burying Elliott on Sunday. At the memorial the casket’s cover was removed so that family and friends could sign it. Tommy Greene, son of Adventist artist Nathan Greene, drew a street bike on the cover to commemorate Elliott and his love of motorcycle riding.
Elliott was buried on the crest of that hill on May 21. Sun shone down on his grave, filtering through the leaves of the Bradford pear tree; small beams of light lit the dirt and grass on which Elliott’s friends and family stood. Friends dressed in motorcycle gear and everyday clothes placed dirt on his casket as others watched. At first the grave was silent except for the sounds of shovels lifting dirt from the mound beside it. Then those watching and shoveling began to sing. They sang of Christian trial and pilgrimage through this world; they sang of the hope we have in Jesus, our hope of resurrection.
Later we learned another story that had a part in making this one possible. In 1944 14-year-old June Lynd died after being thrown from a horse. In 1999 June’s sister, Virginia Orr, donated to Southern Adventist University the three remaining plots that her parents had purchased when June passed away. June was the first person to be buried in Collegedale Cemetery. Elliot and June now lie side by side. Both died similarly and tragically, and both will rise together in the resurrection.
What some might call coincidence is nothing but the hand of God reaching to a family in need. When I saw the sunlight shining on Elliott’s family on Wednesday morning, I imagined God embracing and comforting them during their darkest hour.
Nothing can fill the hole in the Ranzingers’ hearts left by Elliott’s tragic death. But I know that God manifested Himself, showing them that He loves them, just as He loved Elliott. Prophecy proclaims: “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
As Mark reminded us at the funeral, we each have a work, and that work is to bring the promise of the resurrection to fruition. One day we will live in a world in which there will never be another tear.
Carolyn Hamilton is vice president for advancement at Southern Adventist University.