As the pallbearers accompanied the casket down the long center aisle, the finality of the situation hit home.

On the first day of school, a mother died in a car wreck, leaving behind two stunned children, a heartbroken husband and hundreds of shocked friends and acquaintances.

The overflow crowd watched quietly, tears dribbling down faces, as the dazed family trudged into a sunny Texas day that didn’t seem all that bright anymore.

No matter what your faith or beliefs, there are times in life when the question “why” seems incredibly inadequate, and grief and sadness overcome – if only for a moment – the power of hope and happiness.

Most of us are fortunate: The vaunted circle of life generally follows its expected course, taking each of us, our parents and our friends at the more or less appointed time.

Most of us will live our entire lives without personally experiencing something this unexpected and this profound.

But now and again, we will read about such a tragedy in the newspapers, or hear about such an event on television, happening to nameless people in distant places.

And occasionally, it will happen down the street to someone we know or know of.

When it happens, we will take note, of course, and there will be a few moments of introspection. But then our lives will go on, someone else’s bad luck not affecting our lives all that much.

No matter how many times hope springs eternal at the lottery ticket counter, the similar odds of unexpected death seem so much more remote.

It’s unsettling to write about death, of course. It’s much easier to contemplate life.

But a comment delivered from the lectern at this particular funeral gave me pause, and I thought I’d pass it along today:

“We may ask, does our life make a difference?”

That’s an easy question to consider when our projected lifespan is considerably beyond tomorrow. For no matter how busy we are today – perhaps too busy to volunteer at our neighborhood school or too busy to spend some time with a parent or child or friend – we take comfort in the fact that there will always be tomorrow to “make a difference.”

Except, of course, that every once in awhile, one of us won’t live to see tomorrow.

Then the question, “did our life make a difference?” may have quite a different answer.

The people we’re writing about in this month’s cover story aren’t waiting until tomorrow to make a difference. Each of these people is taking time – today – from their busy week to help someone else. Admittedly, they’re not brokering world peace or finding a cure for AIDS. But their actions are making other’s lives better.

Today, not tomorrow.

I have to confess that I don’t spend much time wondering about that ever-elusive goal of “making a difference” in life. Perhaps I should.

How many of us can say with certainty today that we’ll be remembered for the right reasons when we are gone?

Perhaps a good test is to imagine what our funeral service would be like today, and then what it would be like tomorrow, after we’ve found the time to do some of the things we’ve been putting off.

Will our service be filled beyond capacity with friends, neighbors and family touched by our lifetime of kindness and consideration?

Or will the crowd be considerably more intimate, with comments limited to the quality of casket construction and plans for the rest of the day.

Based on what I saw at this funeral, the woman who died wasn’t a procrastinator; the overflow crowd spoke to the fact that she didn’t wait until tomorrow to do something that would make a difference in someone’s life today.

I hope someone will be able to say that about us when our time comes.