Our day began in the small town of Kenmare in County Cork, Ireland. Janet and I were traveling through the region and wanted to make a short visit to an ancient cemetery plot, which had grown up like wild clover around the site of an early monastic settlement dating from the 7th century.
It was a grey morning, the heavens spitting bits of rain. We wandered the cemetery, past the church ruins, past the stone wall which led to the Holy Well down by the river, and back up the hill. The place was empty of living souls, save for an old man who was sipping something hot in his truck when we’d walked to the entrance. Hoping he was not there surreptitiously, we now sought him out.
“Can you tell us where to find the Famine Plot?” we inquired. “We’ve looked all over, even on the directory map.”
He stepped out of his truck. His coat was open, revealing a large belly with a grey woolen sweater stretched over it, the front stained in various shades of brown deepening toward the center. He appeared to be missing all of his top teeth, until he smiled and some outliers mischievously peeked out the corners of his mouth. But his eyes shone, and his melodious and energetic voice told us what we couldn’t decipher from his thick Gaelic accent.
“Just look for the circle of chain down the hill there. Would you like me to take you down?” We still couldn’t see it, so Mr. Harrington graciously ambled down with us. I tried to give him a tip as we went, in case he was a luckless tour guide. “No, I don’t need no money,” he sing-songed. “I’m the proper caretaker here.”
We’d read there was a “famine plot” here, but what would that look like? Years ago, we’d visited the huge, mounded mass graves from the siege of Leningrad in WWII, but we saw nothing resembling this anywhere.
But soon, there it was in front of us, hidden in plain sight by its sheer simplicity. Nothing but a small Celtic cross and a lonely sign, with a flimsy chain encircling a 20-foot diameter. Somehow, between 1000 – 5000 people were buried here during the dark years of the Irish potato famine. The simple grave-marker read, “In memory of all those laid to rest in this FAMINE PLOT during the terrible years 1846-’49. May they rest in peace.”
Mr. Harrington turned to amble back up the hill and let us pay our respects. But as he did, over his shoulder he cast his pearl before us: “May there never be a need for another Famine Plot.”
His wish became my prayer.
To our surprise, many buried here died not of hunger, but of disease. The British had set up a feeding program in town, but the hungry who came soon overwhelmed and overcrowded the facility. As a result, many who arrived hungry but otherwise healthy fell sick while there. Acute dysentery (“the dreaded cholera disease”) broke out in 1849 and so many died that they had to be burned, not buried. Ultimately, no one could keep track of the bodies and ashes interred here.
We stayed awhile; breathed in the solemn wet air, breathed out our silent thoughts and prayers. Then we walked back up to thank Mr. Harrington and compliment him on his fine caretaking, drove away and headed out onto the rugged Ring of Kerry.
After a few bends in the road, my mind bent back to the Famine Plot, and to the human side of mass epidemics, which are simply the suffering of the unique individual multiplied many times over. Yet that multiplication of deaths doesn’t kill the desire to honor our own deceased loved ones, even in times of massive illness. There is still love in the time of cholera.
I’ve read a couple books this year about specific episodes of the Bubonic (“Black”) Plague. I was amazed that even in the 1600s, known cases were monitored, homes were quarantined, and deceased bodies were removed quickly for mass burial to avoid infecting others. I was stunned by the discipline, competence and rigor of the efforts to contain these outbreaks even centuries ago! But, there’s a private human impact to these public health policies. What must it feel like to have a beloved grandparent or mother dumped onto a “dead cart,” or a virginal daughter thrown into a mass grave alongside every sort of rough, sodden old man? What an offense that must be, piled atop the heart’s grief of losing that loved one.
Because of the unceremonious treatment of the dying and deceased by public health workers, families would hide them from the authorities. In moments so critical for disease containment, public health officials become despised and mistrusted by the very people they are trying to protect; the body-collectors and grave-diggers become the adversary, more than the disease.
With our ‘modern’ minds, we can barely comprehend the dynamics: Why would a family hide their sick or dead loved one from the authorities? After all, when this happens, sometimes whole families contract the very same disease… six, seven, eight members of a family may tragically all die by caring for their sick loved one in secrecy from the villainized health officials.
This choice seems so incredibly foreign to us, and yet it was perhaps the very predicament facing your own Irish forebears in the 1840’s. Wives compassionately caring for dying husbands, children privately burying their parents… and as a result often getting sick and dying themselves. But families do not care only about controlling mass epidemics; they care about giving respect to their own dearly beloved—the deceased family members who gave them life, who nursed them to health, who gave so much in order that their children and grandchildren could have a better life.
Even now, the very same dynamics and terrible choices are realities in West Africa, in countries dealing with Ebola. Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons cannot abide the insensitive treatment given to their dead loved ones; and so they hide the sick and the deceased from the authorities. Some no doubt feel accountable to God to properly honor their family members. So they choose what they see as the path of honor and respect, and hide their sick loved ones from the authorities in order to given them a proper burial, while praying to not contract the same deadly disease.
How little we’ve progressed in 400 years! Can we do no better than set up this terrible choice for families in times of crisis and grief? Couldn’t there be some better approach: some way to both protect the public and also affirm the human realities of enduring love and family honor?
Perhaps the current Ebola outbreak may have a silver lining: World Vision is a lead organization in providing “Safe and Dignified Burials” in Sierra Leone. Instead of unceremoniously dumping bodies into a mass grave or burning them under cover of darkness, caring teams of burial workers safely prepare each body for burial in a culturally-sensitive manner. Then they allow for a religious leader to conduct a burial service. As families become aware that these humane services are available if needed for their own sick loved ones, they are increasingly telling the public health authorities of the sick or deceased family members in their home.
Janet and I reflected on all this as we drove through the “Terrible Beauty” that is Ireland, its green, treeless mountains carved through with dark waters. And as we talked, the thick blanket of sky above seemed to open up and weep. Yes, miserly tears from old sorrows, but old sorrows which still elicit new tears. It seemed a tired sadness, weary from too much weeping already; like the Irish soul… gaily Gaelic, yet never far removed from pains of the past, from wrongs forgiven but not forgotten.
Sometimes it’s good not to forget. In remembering, we may conceive of new ideas and new approaches, and do better next time… for the dead, and therefore for the living.
And our remembering may elicit a prayer worth praying over the whole world: May there never be the need for another Famine Plot.