The cemetery where our baby son is buried is a relatively new one, and for a number of years his grave lay alone in the children’s section, by the fence on the far side of the cemetery, well away from the small but slowly increasing number of adult graves.
If we decide to visit – which we do once or perhaps twice a year – then we’ll bring our thoughts, some cleaning materials, and four small stones. Our thoughts are our own, but we’ll use the cleaning stuff to clear away the debris and discolourations left by the seasons, the overhanging trees, and the local wildlife – both animal and human.
And when we’re ready to leave, and as flowers are not encouraged, we’ll follow Jewish custom and place the four stones on the grave: one each for my wife, myself and our two surviving children as a sign of respect and remembrance.
Some time ago, at the same cemetery, I attended the funeral of an elderly member of our community. At the end of the service, as people drifted away, I headed across the open expanse of grass towards the children’s section and our baby’s grave. We hadn’t visited for a long while, and I was expecting to see the usual untidiness. However, as I approached I noticed that the grave looked particularly clean and tidy. As I got nearer I saw that someone had left a single stone by our son’s name. This perplexed me as I knew that the stones we’d left ages before would have disappeared, and I knew of no one else who might wish to visit.
Standing there, lost in thought, I became aware of someone approaching. I turned to see an elderly lady who must have been at the funeral. She touched my arm and asked, in a precise English still tinged with the German of her youth “Are you the father?”.
Managing to suppress the urge – even in that situation – to make a smart-alec and totally inappropriate response, I answered simply that I was.
She smiled and said, “I’m so glad. I wasn’t sure if there was family, and I couldn’t bear the thought of this little chap all alone over here”.
It turned out that on her regular visits to her husband’s grave, she would come over to our baby’s grave, clean up what she could, say a little prayer, and leave a stone as a sign that someone had visited , that someone cared.
In a time of increasing fear for ourselves and for the world at large, it is all-too-easy to turn in on ourselves and focus on that which is ours. We forget at our peril that it is so often the kindness of strangers, the selfless reaching out to help others, that is a real force for good in the world. If, when doing nothing is by far the easier option, we each made that extra effort to help the stranger, to welcome the ‘other’ then we might go some way to mend at least some of the many wounds and sorrows of our age and our planet.