Martha’s Vineyard Museum holds 12th ceremony of remembrance

A crowd of at least 200 gathered Saturday afternoon at the Edgartown Lighthouse. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A large crowd ringed the Edgartown Lighthouse under a brilliant blue sky Saturday afternoon to remember, grieve, and celebrate children of all ages honored there. Begun 12 years ago, the Edgartown Lighthouse Children’s Memorial now contains 701 stones set around the lighthouse, each inscribed with the name of a child whose life was lost too soon. The annual Ceremony of Remembrance held by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, steward of the lighthouse, drew well over 200 family members and friends for a simple program featuring comforting music, prayer, and remarks.

Surrounded by the others who had endured similar loss, many held hands, embraced, wiped away tears. Some held flowers or trinkets to place on their loved one’s stone. A few wore commemorative colored bracelets or a pin bearing a youngster’s photo. Younger children — unaware of the solemnity of the moment — played in the sand. Not far away, other families enjoyed the sunny beach day much as those at the ceremony had done with their children in happier times.

Rick Harrington stood among the crowd, tall and trim, his wife, Susan, at his side. A bereaved parent like so many here, Mr. Harrington first envisioned creating the memorial as a way to honor his son Ricky Jr., who died at 16 in an auto accident in 1995. A few years after the devastating loss, Mr. Harrington was inspired by a photo of Ricky at the lighthouse years earlier. He took his vision of a children’s memorial to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum), where he received a positive response from director Matthew Stackpole, lighthouse committee chair Craig Dripps, and others.

After countless months of planning, gathering support, and facing challenges, a slow but steady restoration process began on the lighthouse, then in a state of extreme disrepair. Rebuilding the crumbling base and laying cobblestones was a first step.

The dedication ceremony on July 14, 2001, was a momentous occasion, with some 120 names scattered on stones places across the plaza and a modest crowd. Now the inscribed cobblestones are everywhere. And participants at Saturday’s ceremony filled the plaza and stood several deep on the sand.

Although encircled by those who had been touched and comforted by the memorial he had worked to establish, Mr. Harrington was not thinking of his own achievement. Instead, he said he had begun the day with a visit to his childhood friend Edward “Peter” Vincent to thank him for all he had done to bring the memorial project to fruition. He said Mr. Vincent was part of the historical society leadership when the project began.

“He was a major contributor and spearheaded the idea with me,” Mr. Harrington said appreciatively. “He really pushed for this.”

More and more names have been added each year, as word of the unique memorial has spread far beyond the Island. Some cobblestones bear familiar names that commemorate those with connections to the Vineyard. Many others hailed from across New England, other states around the country, and even abroad.

Mainland support groups for bereaved parents refer families here. Others find the memorial by chance, through word of mouth or on the Internet. Personalized stones may be purchased for $250. Dudley Levick inscribes the names, and batches of new stones are placed twice each year.

Although the memorial continues to be geared towards children, the museum fulfills occasional requests for a stone to honor an adult.

“After all, everyone is somebody’s child,” said Betsey Mayhew, museum staffer who manages the memorial and lead the ceremony.

Music by singers Pam Butterick and Martha Hudson, with organist Phil Dietterich playing electronic keyboard, was especially fitting for the occasion.

Introducing the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel,” Ms. Mayhew offered a description of the scene as brother and sister are lost in the frightening woods but at length return to safety. She likened this to the meaning behind the memorial.

“As families and friends of the children here, you have shared the pain and terror that Hansel and Gretel feel during their long night in the dark woods,” said Ms. Mayhew. “You may not be totally out of the darkness and there will always be shadows. But being here, in this place of light, brings hope and the knowledge that there is a safe harbor for these children and for us all.”

The Rev. Jack Burton lead the assemblage in an eloquent prayer, composed for this memorial by the Rev. Dr. John Schule.

Finally, those present joined the musicians to sing “What a Wonderful World,” a reminder of the loveliness of life even in loss.

Afterwards, many walked about the plaza, contemplating each name, stopping at the one most important to them. A number carefully adorned their loved one’s stone. Some made designs of goldenrod and beach grass, arranged seashells and wampum. There were bright fall bouquets, a tiny bunch of pastel flowers just right for a little girl, a single red rose, a miniature stuffed white bunny.

It was still a lovely beach day, and a few families walked to the water’s edge or sat together on the warm sand.

Ms. Mayhew remarked on the bittersweet quality of the day, the uplifting beauty of the setting despite the sadness.

“This is not a graveyard,” she said. “It’s a very living place.”