Recently, a dear friend visited for a few days. During our first evening, when we were discussing what to do during her visit, she mentioned St George, a suburb of Bristol nearby. I asked her what her connection with this area was. After a brief pause, she told me that her first child, who had died at birth, had been interred in the Avonview Cemetery. At the time (fifty-two years previously), the hospital usually made arrangements, and the boy’s ashes had been scattered on open ground within the cemetery, overlooking the city. My friend had been back to the spot many years before, but she felt that it would be fitting to return again.
The next day, we went to the cemetery. As she remembered, it was very large and quite elevated. The taxi driver left us at the main entrance, and we walked up the long drive. Graves addressed us on all sides, mostly neglected and overgrown, some with broken memorials or paving. Some of the headstones had been laid flat on the ground for reasons of safety.
We turned left along a higher path. I didn’t know whether my companion had any sense of the right direction, but after a while she turned through a gate into a small area behind a wall. This was the children’s graveyard. The area was less than an acre in size, full of small graves, mostly stone and gravel, with vases containing flowers or colourful windmills. Children’s toys – usually figures of animals – were placed on many of the graves. The inscriptions on the graves revealed that in nearly every case the child’s life had lasted less than one day. Every one was maintained, most of them immaculately. A young couple were tending a grave not far from where we stood.
I found the sight almost unbearably moving, and stayed in the children’s graveyard while my friend continued to search for the spot where her child’s remains had been scattered. Why, I wondered, do we take such care with the memory of children whose lives ended almost before they began? It must be to do with the sense of lost potential, of unfairness. The adults commemorated by the broken graves in the main area had lived their lives. But these children had died before their parents. They had never had the chance to contribute to life, to receive love from others and to give their joy. Continuity was possible only symbolically. Their memorials would be maintained as freshly as the day they were created.
I understood, as I waited in the children’s graveyard, why the loss of a younger person is so devastating. It is against the order of nature. It represents the loss of the youthful virtue that refreshes and renews. Whether the loss is of one’s own child, a younger partner, or perhaps a young friend or relative, its poignancy is different from that of a deceased older than oneself who has lived out their life span.
My friend returned to tell me that she had found the place. It was, as she remembered, an open, grassy, gently-sloping hillside. It was the common ground, unmarked. There was no broken, neglected stone. A carpet of daisies formed a wide path down the hill. Buttercups burst their deep yellow out of the long grass. Bright flowers had been tied to a young tree, in remembrance.
She stood in the field.
Afterwards, we walked to the main road, shared a lunch in a wholefood café, and caught the local train home.