Sunday, September 02, 2007

Faith Works 9-8-07
Jeff Gill

Children Lost, and Found

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” said historian L.P. Hartley.

A story came out of Chicago recently that got me thinking about that strange land where tourists can’t readily travel.

Some folks of Greek ancestry did a little research into an odd corner of their Orthodox cemetery, and found that there were 160 unmarked graves, dating back to before 1935, with 22 buried in 1918 from the global influenza pandemic of that year.
And they were all children.

In looking for the causes for so many unmarked graves, laid to rest mostly before the Depression, the record keepers confronted some forgotten realities of an era just before our own. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1926 the number of children who died within the first year of life was 73 out of 1,000. That same figure today is less than 7 of 1,000 born.

Economics and cultural differences among Greek immigrants play a role, no doubt, but can you imagine the difference it would make in a neighborhood, around a church, for parents in general, if ten times as many small children died?

Just after reading that story, I heard a sermon preached about Methodist heritage, where the congregation was reminded that John Wesley’s mother Susanna was the 24th of 25th children, and that John and Charles were among 19 born to Susanna and her husband Samuel. Only ten of those 19 survived to adulthood, and no one is quite sure how many in the generation before, but likely half or less of the 25 lived.

How must that atmosphere have affected parenting? What does a mortality rate of 50%, and in those quantities, do to your sense of childhood?

Morbid enough?

Ah, but it gets worse. The superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, John Latschar, recently revisited a speech he gave in 1995, considering whether, in Lincoln’s words, “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

He observed that, nearing the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks (as we approach the sixth), comparing the impact of the Civil War and 9-11 was both sobering, and instructive.

If you look at the numbers as a percentage of the American population, the death toll on the Gettysburg battlefield was the same as twenty-one September 11’s. For the Civil War as a whole, to compare today using population percentages, you would see 37.3 million in military service, and 6 million deaths. As a comparative percentage of the American population, there were 42 Civil War battles that were equal to or greater than the impact of 9-11 in casualties.

Imagine a Sept. 11 every month, for four years. Latschar says “One cannot even begin to comprehend how the nation could cope with such a horrific and prolonged struggle today.”

With the toll in Iraq creeping steadily toward 4,000 deaths, and tens of thousands more wounded (and that simply the American toll of this combat), we count our soldiers dear and grieve even the losses of those who oppose us. We have recalibrated our sensibility and adjusted our willingness to express our feelings over death, whether among children or combat troops.

There is, I think, no disputing that we are better off as a society for losing the indifference that we either once had, or learned to put on. What we have trouble making sense of is both the stoicism of generations past -- and sometimes still with us -- and what to do with the strong emotion evoked by sorrow and tragedy and loss.

Turning our personal grief inward and just plugging along we now see as something less than healthy. Pouring emotions of the moment all over public view doesn’t seem to bring much healing or resolution, either. How do we remember, and honor, and grieve, and learn from senseless tragedy?

Public rituals that make memory tangible can help weave frayed strands of community back together. Shared acts of commitment give a place and location to general feelings of helplessness, and places expression in a setting of communication, not just tirade.

Today we have candlelight vigils and peace rallies on street corners, ribbons on trees and roadside crosses. Pickup truck window clings and yes, even tattoos exist to give voice to sorrow that otherwise might find a more destructive outlet.

Grief and sorrow may not look quite how they once did, but from Antigone to Rizpah (see 2 Samuel 21:10), our enduring human reaction to death is to cherish and honor the dead as a way of showing what we value in life.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your memorial event remembrances at

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