28 November 2008

Finding a Grave After 84 Years

Under the Acacia
Finding a Grave After 84 years

This was to have appeared in Negros Times last Monday, 24 November. However, the paper isn’t being published right now. The column contains some material from my post ‘In Flanders Fields’ but I focused on the finding of my great-uncle’s grave. We are still in the month when Catholics remember the dead in a special way.

One thing that Filipinos and Irish share is respect for the dead. I think that this comes mainly from the Catholic faith that prevails in both countries, though people of every culture and faith and none have their various ways of burying the dead and remembering them.

While working in Mindanao I noticed that many visited the cemetery on Mondays and each parish had a Misa Comun that day when the priest would offer Mass for the souls of all the dead whose names had been given in during the week ahead. People would bring an offering with their list. As far as I know, this is a custom among Cebuano-speakers, though it may be done by others too.

I would say that Filipinos are better than the Irish for visiting cemeteries. However, during the summer in Ireland many parishes or districts have a ‘Cemetery Sunday’ when Mass is offered for all who are buried in the particular place. This practice, as far as I know, is a relatively new one.

The Irish are very good at remembering the dead in speech, with expressions such as “May he rest in peace”, ‘Lord be good to her”, “The light of heaven on her”, when someone deceased is mentioned. It’s mostly older people who follow this custom now but you often hear these prayers, because that’s what they are, on radio and TV. They express a strong sense of the Communion of Saints, being one with the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory, with the hope of joining them one day.

When I was a child my mother often mentioned her Uncle Larry Dowd who had died in the Great War, “the war to end all wars”, 1914-1918, later to be called World War I. However, she had no details apart from her father hearing the “banshee”, “bean sí”, or “fairy woman” with long hair whose wailing foretells a death in the family, according to folklore. Larry was my grandmother’s brother. However, even though she died only the year before my ordination Í never thought of asking her about him, something I deeply regret.

Some years after my mother’s death I asked her sisters about their Uncle Larry. One thought he
had died in Gallipoli, Turkey, but none of them had any details. By chance I came across a book with the names of all soldiers in Irish regiments of the British army who had died in the Great War and there found an entry for “Corporal L. Dowd” who died in Belgium, on August 6, 1917. The only thing that raised a doubt in my mind was that he was listed as having been born in Scotland. However, he had enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. My research since has shown that only one person by the name of “L. Dowd” died in action in the Great War.

(Transfiguration, Raphael, painted 1516-1520)

In 2001, when I was based in Britain, I was asked by Joy, a friend from Mindanao to officiate at her Church wedding on September 8 to her husband, Stefaan, a Belgian. They lived near Ieper, or “Ypres” as it is known in French, a city that was utterly destroyed in the Great War but that was rebuilt with the help of the blueprints of the original buildings. There are many war cemeteries in the area, maintained beautifully by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Stefaan took me to the In Flanders Fields Museum where I told an official what I knew about Larry. Less than a minute later a computer printed the details of where he was buried and we went to the cemetery immediately.

It was a very moving moment for me to be the first and only relative, 84 years after his death, to visit the grave of Laurence Dowd who had died in a war that for the soldiers on both sides was utter hell. I find some consolation in the fact that he died on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

So many of the headstones in the war cemeteries don’t have a name but simply ‘A Soldier of such-and-such a Regiment’. The vast majority were still in their late teens or early twenties.

The British built a monument in Ieper called the Menin Gate. On it are listed the names of more than 50,000 soldiers of the British Commonwealth whose remains were never found. They were from all over the British Empire – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland, India, which then included what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, the African colonies and the Caribbean, apart from the great numbers from the United Kingdom itself, which then included the whole of Ireland.

Every might at 8.00 volunteer buglers from Ieper’s firefighters the Last Post at the Mennen Gate and traffic comes to a halt. The evening I was there a very old man, possibly a veteran of the Great War, placed a wreath. Beside me was a young woman with a baby not more than a week old. This brought tears to my eyes. Here was a woman passing on to her new-born the memory of the tragedy of the Great War, which everyone in that part of Belgium carries, in the presence of someone who probably had fought in it.

Joy and Stefaan promised they would visit the grave of my great-uncle Larry on Armistice Day, November 11, a public holiday in Belgium, which they did. The Great War ended at 11 A.M. on November 11 ninety years ago. May my Uncle Larry and all the other soldiers buried near the battlefields of Europe rest in peace.

The Confession of the Centurion (La Confession du Centurion)

James Tissot (1836-1902)

1 comment:

Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Father Seán,
What a wonderful 'FIND' after 84 years and you at least keep his memory alive through your writing!