On Saturday afternoon, under bright blue skies, Norma Mendoza posed for a picture next to the Edgartown Lighthouse. At her feet lay a gray stone inscribed with the names Rosaura and Rafael Freire Mendoza surrounded by flowers and small white Precious Moments figurines.
Ms. Mendoza was just one of many who attended the annual Children's Memorial Ceremony of Remembrance, a gathering for families who have lost loved ones of all ages who are now memorialized with granite cobblestones that surround the lighthouse.
"It's a celebration, not a sad thing," said Susan Harrington whose husband Rick conceived of the idea of a children's memorial at the lighthouse back in 1995, after losing his son to a car accident.
"Beacons of love, beacons of home, a way home — that's how the idea came," Mr. Harrington remembered.
Mr. Harrington brought the idea to the historical society where, with the help of Edward (Peter) Vincent, the memorial became a reality. It debuted in 2001 with about 10 stones. Today, the memorial is home to 701 stones.
In July 2012, Ms. Mendoza's twins passed away at 21 weeks gestation. Soon after she joined the HOPE Group in Revere, a peer support group for parents grieving from pregnancy and infant loss. It was from the support group that Ms. Mendoza found out about the memorial at the lighthouse.
"I came for the first time in July for their anniversary," she said. "I was just in love. I never knew this existed." HOPE Group founder Rindy Huebner's stone lies adjacent to the twins' stones. Ms. Huebner passed away in February.
"It's built up and around such a wonderful place," said Chris Cowan, whose sister Carole passed away at the age of 51 in June 2009. She used to sit at Memorial Wharf and look to the lighthouse, but not be able to walk the sandy path. "It is such an inspiration," he said.
Mr. Cowan was so moved by the memorial that he wrote a poem titled Down by the Lighthouse to honor his sister and others memorialized there.
Down by the lighthouse, right there by the shore,
You’ve found beauty and happiness for evermore.
My back against the lighthouse, your stone at my feet,
I feel you sitting here with me.
At peace and at rest in your home by the sea.
Five years ago Muriel Dion of Fall River lost her son Kevin at age 21. The lighthouse has become a sacred spot for her.
"It's a place to come to every year to remember," Ms. Dion said holding back tears. "It's a special day for him and me."
And while many families come year after to year to celebrate the lives of their loved ones, Saturday's event was the first for Chris and Lynne McDonnell who lost their daughter Grace last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Even at age seven, Grace was enamored with the Vineyard. Her dream was to be a painter and live on the Island.
"This is a place of peace for us," said Ms. McDonnell. "This will be how we remember Grace."
For Ms. Mendoza, a sense of comfort and support came from attending her first ceremony.
"It meant a lot," she said. "You don't get the chance to be around many other people that lost a child. It's not that we as mothers want another mother to experience the loss of a child, but it feels good because they really understand, they really understand."
As Betsy Mayhew closed out the ceremony of song, prayer and celebration under a perfect September sky, she said: "Being here in this place of light brings hope that there is a place of safe harbor for these children — and for all of us."