by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper, 11/2014
The month of November means many things: the beginning of the Christmas season (at precisely one second past Halloween), elections every two years, Thanksgiving, and Veterans Day, just to name a few.
But you may not know that in many faiths, November is considered a month of remembrance. Usually starting on November 2nd (the Feast of All Souls), many churches, including Saint Anthony’s in Boston and Saint Mary’s in Foxboro, have a “Book of Remembrance” in the church where people are invited to write the names of their beloved deceased, and these names will be remembered and prayed for all month.
As I write this column, I am filling in names on a small maroon card sent by BC High — every alumni of my alma mater receives this card annually to write the names of those family members and friends who have gone before us. We return the card to the school, and it is placed with all the others on the altar in the Loyola Chapel. Throughout the month of November, those names are remembered at all masses.
(I’d like to add that this simple gesture from my beloved high school means more to me than they can ever know. God bless the priests and staff at BC High for this act of kindness and remembrance.)
See, we need to remember. It’s important.
There is the paradox, the contradiction: No matter how much we miss someone, we cannot live in a state of perpetual grieving — at some point we MUST go on, and live our lives, and hopefully, live life to its fullest, making our own future.
But that said, no matter how long it’s been since someone left your life, it’s good every now and then to REMEMBER them. To tell someone about them, and let their memory live on.
Because they lived.
Because they mattered.
Because they must never be forgotten.
These past few weeks, both Father Steve Madden and Deacon Paul Kline have spoken about Foxboro’s Cross Street cemetery. This burial place is unique, because the graves there are marked by NUMBERS – not names.
Each person laid to rest there was a patient of the former Foxboro State Hospital –- these are the people whose bodies were never claimed by anyone. Each of these “unclaimed” souls was buried with only their hospital ID number as a marker. We don’t know their name, what their lives were like, what kind of person they were
Just a number.
It’s incredibly sad, and not hard to imagine that many of them did not have happy lives, and that in the very end, many must have been afraid they would be forgotten.
But there is remembrance. There is love for these “forgotten” people.
Each year, as part of their community service, the incoming ninth grade confirmation class at Saint Mary’s gathers regularly at the cemetery to not only remove leaves and debris from the graves and clean them up, but each student “adopts” a numbered gave that year, and prays for that person, so that they are remembered, not by a number, but with love and dignity.
What a beautiful, perfect gesture for these poor souls.
In a recent sermon, Father Steve mentioned that he also had adopted a number (3182), and written that particular number in the book of remembrance. He prays for that person every day.
They are not forgotten.
Like it or not, we’re all walking that path, and one day, each of us will be laid to rest.
We want to be remembered.
We need to be remembered.
In another recent homily, Deacon Paul spoke of his travels and the many people he has met, and how he has tried to help them. But there is one little girl he always remembers.
The meeting took place in a refugee camp in Liberia. The girl, who had lived in Sierra Leone, had lost her family, her home, her entire village. Everything she knew was gone – and the likelihood of her very survival was slim. Her world had quite literally ended. She had no hope for a happy future.
That day, Deacon Paul struggled to find the words. What could he do? What could he possibly say to this child, what could he possibly offer?
“What can I do?” he asked quietly.
She looked at him.
She replied, “Don’t let the world forget about me.”
So he tells her story, and while we don’t know if that girl is still alive, she is remembered. Her story gets told. And re-told.
She lived. She mattered. Her life, mattered. She is remembered.
And after that particular mass, I talked to Deacon Paul and Father Steve to ask their permission to include these stories, because I kept thinking about those people at Cross Street, about that little girl, about the many homeless people I met when I worked in Boston and about the countless number of people who have no one in their lives…
…and I kept thinking…
Ultimately, I think the worst thing that can happen to someone is if they are forgotten – that’s why the story of the people buried at Cross Street and that little girl in the refugee camp resonated with me so much – we need to be remembered. We all know our life will end one day – but will we be remembered?
I’m not talking about statues and memorials or street signs or parks named after us — it can be as simple as a story, an anecdote, anything. My grandfather died a year before I was born; but thanks to my Mom I am still learning about him through her stories about him. I wrote a book about my Nana because her life mattered, and I want her to be remembered. My friends and I often share stories and fond memories of family and friends who have left us. They live on through us.
It’s why we have memorial masses and gatherings for people years – even decades – later. We tell their stories, and the tall tales. They are remembered. They live on.
So, as you go on with the business of living – and please do try to live that life to its fullest — take a little time to remember those people who have passed on, maybe say a prayer for them or have a good thought, and best, tell someone else about them. Keep their stories going. Don’t ever stop talking about the people you knew who have passed on — Let them live on through you.
Remember them. You can do them no greater honor.
End of speech. I’ll be funny next time.