An aerial reunion

Terre Young and Gus Ben David teamed up to create a moving way to honor the dead.


I was up at Terre and Scott Young’s farm off Lambert’s Cove Road to buy some fresh eggs and I was talking to Scott as a couple of red-tailed hawks were circling overhead looking for some varmints or maybe even one of Scotty’s chickens to eat.

Scott said that one day he was watching a hawk as it swooped into the door of a chicken coop like a battering ram, knocking the door open and helping himself to dinner. “They’re amazing birds,” he said.

Watching them soar in the wind was mesmerizing and Scott, knowing I’m always on the lookout for new stories, said to me, “Did I ever tell you how Terre, when she was with Hospice, used to work with Gus Ben David to release doves, to commemorate special occasions?”

Terre ran Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard until about 2016. “So when I was the executive director of Hospice,” Terre said, “we had wanted to have a remembrance, an opportunity for the families to come together and remember the people who they had lost over the last year.”

The first thing Terre did was to investigate what other cultures did to gather and remember their loved ones. “I learned that many Native Americans — I’m not sure if that included the Wampanoag Tribe or not — would use butterflies to spiritually communicate with their ancestors,” Terre said. 

So Terre ordered boxes of monarch butterflies from California and released them on a crisp autumn day at Felix Neck, and it was transcendent, but there were a couple of problems: 

The butterflies were slow to disperse; there wasn’t that climactic moment when they ascended into the sky. And environmentalists were concerned that they were introducing a foreign species into our environment, “Which I understood,” Terre said, “so we decided not to have another butterfly release, and by this time the idea had caught on and people were already using butterflies for weddings and even baptisms. So we were like, ‘okay fine, we won’t do that anymore.’” But Terre kept investigating what other cultures did and came to some fascinating discoveries. “I discovered that in China they have temples in the cities and in the countryside, and a fire is always burning in the temple,” Terre said. “Also in the temple are pieces of paper where you can write something down, put it in the fire and your message goes up to someone you want to communicate with.”

Terre liked this idea. “In a way it’s like the butterfly idea,” she said. “We’re spiritually connecting with the afterlife, but what if we did it with something indigenous to this area like perhaps doves or pigeons?” 

Terre called Gus Ben David, a noted naturalist on the Island and the founder of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, and asked him if he could work with hospice using pigeons or doves for the memorial service instead of butterflies. “Absolutely,” Ben David said. “I’ve been working with pigeons since I was six years old. I love pigeons.” He also said that technically we couldn’t use doves because doves don’t have a homing instinct, so they would just fly away and not come back to the place where they were born and raised, like homing pigeons do. Instead we would use what are called “white homers” — if you use white pigeons they look just like doves.

Terre and Gus would go on to arrange this memorial service at various places on the Island.

Terre describes a typical service that occurred at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.

“There were probably around 20 or 30 people there,” Terre said, “including our staff, who in many cases were very attached to the Hospice patients and their families and it was incredibly moving. Everybody brought pictures of their loved ones and we had a beautiful lunch together. We had this lovely gallery we made in one of the rooms overlooking the harbor and we always arranged to have beautiful music provided by Island musicians, including people like Steven and Joyce Maxner, harpist Nathanial Horowitz, and pianist David Stanwood. When people found out it was for Hospice, they were all very generous with their time and talent.”

David Stanwood recalls how he prepared to play for such an event. “I played solo and created a sound ambiance,” David said in an email. “I’ve been giving solace a lot recently with my music,” he wrote. “It gives the mind and soul space to stretch out in. At such an occasion I like to park myself near the memory table and create a safe sound space for spacing out. 

“And then at the end,” Terre said, “It was time to introduce Gus. People would gather out on those magnificent porches at the Harbor View and Gus stood on the lawn below them and spoke about what the pigeons would do and why they would do it and then, in a dramatic moment, he would release the pigeons,” she said. “They would fly up and circle around to get their bearings then seek the heavens. I looked out at everyone assembled on the deck, and it was so powerful and beautiful, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t weeping.”



  1. Wonderful article, but could someone tell Dena Porter that there is no “d” in “pigeon”? In her photo descriptions, she spelled it “pidgeon” every time. Thanks!

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