DEER ISLE — The sun rose and set on the island Tuesday, a reminder that life goes on, even in the presence of death.
Island residents paused in their lives, however, as they gathered at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School gymnasium to say goodbye to Erin Elayne Dunham, the 14-year-old girl from Sunset who was killed last week in a car accident while on her way home from Christmas caroling with friends.
The gymnasium was filled as more than 500 family members, friends, classmates, teachers and neighbors came to remember and to celebrate her short life. Erin’s life, friends said, had touched everyone.
Music, which had been an important part of her life, was present throughout the ceremony including Christmas songs, such as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a particular favorite of Erin’s, whom more than one speaker described as an angel.
They remembered a young woman with a robust sense of humor and a contagious smile; a girl who, until recently, was shy and reserved, but who had become more outgoing and more loving as she matured. They remembered a girl who loved to be involved in school with the band, the chess club and the outing club, and at church, through her music and the youth group.
They remembered an enthusiasm that she shared with others, and how she loved to be around people.
“I was on the chess team with her,” said senior Mike Augustine. “She knew she wasn’t very good but she tried her hardest and was always there for moral support. She loved just to be around everyone.”
She was also a person who never said a negative thing about anyone, according to senior Mindy Douvarjo.
“I never heard her say anything negative at all,” she said.
Erin’s father, Robin Dunham, recounted the last full day he spent with his daughter, which included a trip to a church meeting in Poland. He tearfully remembered telling her at the end of the day how proud he was of her, and he remembered her saying, “I love you. Goodnight.”
The three girls who were injured in the accident that took Erin’s life read poems written for their friend, or that reminded them of her, their young voices soft and often muffled with tears.
Tears flowed freely throughout the service from young and old. But amid the tears, there were smiles that reflected a life well lived.
Elder Larry Varisco from the Church of Jesus Christ Restoration, who conducted the service, recounted an outing with Erin’s grandfather when Erin and her younger sister, Samantha, participated in a chicken round-up. Erin, “with her long legs,” outdistanced everyone and, with Samantha, soon had the chickens where they needed to be, Varisco recalled.
A family friend, Wendy Faulkingham, read a letter written by Erin’s mother, Tanya Taylor, who recalled how Erin didn’t like getting up in the morning, and the game she had played to wake her.
“I used to play country music really loud, until she couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said.
In that letter, Taylor urged parents in the room to “hug your children and tell them that you love them.”
And she urged the students attending the ceremony not to blame God or to point fingers at anyone.
“It’s easy to blame God when terrible things happen,” she wrote. “It’s so hard to understand his plan for our lives.”
She told the students that “Erin’s spirit will be with you always.”
Lynn Campman, assistant principal at the high school, said the staff and teachers at the school all remembered Erin as a “kind and gentle young person with a wisdom that was beyond her years.”
She urged students particularly to create a place for Erin in their hearts and to practice her “kindness and gentleness within our relationships with each other.”
Ultimately, Erin was remembered as a girl who had a deep faith in God that colored every aspect of her life, which she had enjoyed to its fullest.
“She was able to share the beauty of what she believed,” said Gary Wilson, an elder in her church. “Erin understood life and loved unconditionally. You could see that in her eyes. She didn’t have to say anything. Just a simple glance spoke volumes — that she accepted me as one of those people she loved.”
There is a saying that most people miss heaven by 13 inches, Varisco said.
“Thirteen inches, that’s the distance between the head and the heart,” he said. “Erin did not miss heaven. She knew her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and she is with him now.”