The wind howled through while families stood around the Edgartown Lighthouse, present to remember the children who left them too soon. Mothers held back tears and fathers carried somber expressions on their faces as Island musician Jeremy Berlin played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on piano.
On Saturday, around 150 people showed up for the 20th annual Ceremony of Remembrance at the Edgartown Lighthouse Children’s Memorial. The event was hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The memorial features 948 stones, including 55 stones that were added in the past year, of children who died from families who live on Martha’s Vineyard year-round or have a connection to the Island. White carnations were available for families to adorn their child’s stone and a map to help find it. Brushes and black Sharpies were passed around so families could clean up their child’s stone.
Heather Seger, the museum’s director, welcomed parents, thanking them for entrusting the museum and the lighthouse to hold the “children’s names in the light.”
The museum’s former director, Matthew Stackpole, reflected on the creation of the memorial. Not too long after he got the position in 2000, he met Rick Harrington, the man who came up with the idea for the memorial. Harrington came forward with the need to find solace after he lost his teenage son, Ricky, in an automobile accident in 1995. He knew he was not the only one who could use such a place of memorial refuge. The lighthouse was in need of repairs, so Harrington’s proposal came at the right time. However, the memorial was not in the original scope of fixing up the lighthouse, and was scrutinized to see whether it was possible with the finite resources of the museum. Eventually, the idea was approved.
“Lighthouses exist to guide and welcome people to a safe harbor, and wasn’t this idea a legitimate manifestation of that concept?” Stackpole said. “People were visibly moved by the idea, but also everyone who played a significant role gave something of themselves to the project.”
The inaugural ceremony for the memorial happened in 2001, demonstrating it made an impact “dealing with the horrible reality it speaks.” More importantly, Stackpole said, it brings together those who experienced the loss of their children and provides a sense of solace.
Seger also remembered how she learned of the memorial early into her tenure as the museum’s director. Seger had a conversation with Lynn McDonnell, who lost her daughter Grace in Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting. McDonnell shared stories about her daughter, who also has a stone at the memorial, with Seger.
“In her voice, I could hear so much raw pain and so much sadness. But that wasn’t all I heard. There was strength, there was resilience, and above all, there was so much love,” Seger said.
Jody Cukier, who lost her daughter Julia, came forward to address the crowd. Cukier is from New York, and Julia’s stone has rested at the memorial for 10 years now. Ten years ago, after visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Cukier felt inspired to write the poem, “Empty Shell,” dedicated to Julia. It described the natural and human-made beauties of the Island, alongside a parent’s pain of losing their child.
“I wanted to share … how this Island has put into sharp focus the absence of our children and yet the presence of such beauty,” Cukier said. “Please dedicate this to the names of all your children, as it is in their memory as well.”
According to Seger, news of the memorial usually spreads by word of mouth. Over the years, the memorial has created a community of grieving families that supports one another. Some families even maintain regular contact, coming together annually in remembrance of the children they lost.
“We’re honored to play that role for families as a support and as an ear, as they move through what must be an incredibly difficult time,” Seger said. “That loss doesn’t go away.”
Seger said it is not really the museum’s place to reject people’s requests to have their deceased child’s name carved into a memorial stone at the lighthouse.
“There are about 100 stones left in the memorial, so we hope to be able to do it for a few more years,” Seger said.
A complete list of names on memorial stones can be found on the museum’s website.