For the loved ones who gathered at the base of the Edgartown Lighthouse for the annual Ceremony of Remembrance on Saturday afternoon, their stories may have differed but their pain was the same — the grief of losing a child.
About 700 stones line the foundation of the lighthouse, each engraved with the names of children who are now memorialized thanks to an idea that was conceived by Island resident Rick Harrington after the death of his son in 1995.
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.
On Saturday, friends and family members braced themselves against strong winds as they listened to music by Molly Conole and a prayer by lighthouse keeper Jack Burton.
“So many stones, so many precious stones,” said Mr. Burton. “They are more than names at the edge of the sea, at the foot of a beacon of light. They are thoughts and feelings woven in life, and lives with the memories of what was and what might have been.”
Betsy Mayhew, who has managed the memorial since 2001, talked about the process of creating each individual stone. Names are submitted and then sent off-Island each spring to be transformed into a stencil that will be placed on the stone and installed at the base of the lighthouse by a stonemason.
Worn by weather, the names fade over time, so there is a supply of black Sharpie markers inside the lighthouse for darkening the stone lettering — the best method they have found so far.
“I was thinking about this and it seems like a metaphor,” said Ms. Mayhew. “Over time, the edges soften a little bit and the pain fades but something will happen to bring it back again.”
After the ceremony, loved ones gathered around their stones, placing shells, rocks, pumpkins, flowers and other mementos beside the names.
Edgartown resident Maryanne Jerome, whose son Joseph died two years ago after a lifelong chronic illness, said that while she has been comforted by the support of the Island community, sharing the experience with other families at the ceremony is particularly meaningful.
“To be able to collectively come here and just be with other families is really special,” said Ms. Jerome. “When Joseph passed away, the first people who came to us were people who had lost children. It was overwhelming support.”
The pain of losing a child too soon is something that the families said they still struggle with, no matter how many years pass.
“It’s been a long time but it’s still with us,” said Cathy Kulas of Canton, Mass. She and her husband, Richard, were at the lighthouse to remember their son, Robert Francis, who passed away at 11 months old.
“The Island is part of us,” Mrs. Kulas said.
Ms. Mayhew said that the stones represent stories to be told and not forgotten.
“Having the stones at the lighthouse with its message of light and safe harbor seems right,” Ms. Mayhew said. “We hold this ceremony each year as a way to help you share your stories and in that way each of these stones is a part of Martha’s Vineyard history.”
And for families like Sharon and Jamison Carr of Wellesley, who lost their son Samuel Jon in utero last year, the ceremony at the lighthouse will become part of their history.
“I’m so glad I found out about this because it gives us a place to grieve,” said Ms. Carr. “I felt like we didn’t have a way to remember our little baby. And our little boy’s stone will never be in the shade because it’s south facing. Other than clouds there will never be a shadow cast.”