The email came out of the blue: ‘This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We’d like to do something about the gravestone of Stoker 2nd Class J J Hulance, in St. Mary’s churchyard. The gravestone is beginning to fade.’
At first I thought it was a mistake. What would a Sailor from the First World War be doing in Hullavington, so far from the sea? And I thought I knew about our war graves – J J Hulance didn’t ring a bell.
But they were right. There it was, last but one near the wall of the Old Rectory. I hadn’t spotted it because it was not a typical war grave, not one of the classic white stones with which we are so familiar. Instead it is a small, simple memorial given by an already widowed mother in memory of a son who went to war and never returned. The words are almost illegible from the passage of time, but you can still make out a carved anchor. An act of remembrance for a young man who died in the service of his country.
It turns out that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would like to erect a new stone, so that Stoker Hulance’s name is not forgotten. For as you may have guessed, we don’t know much about him. What I am about to tell you is virtually the sum total of my knowledge. We know that he was buried on the 5th February 1916, and that he served on board HMS New Zealand. The mystery deepens – for HMS New Zealand was a lucky ship that, despite seeing battle, was hardly damaged, and wasn’t in action near that date. It seems Joseph John Hulance died as a result of illness.
We don’t know much more. Like the lettering on his stone memories have faded with time. Like the petals of a poppy flower which last just a few days, facts have fallen and cannot be retrieved. For none of his generation remain. Those who knew him personally, for whom memory was fresh even decades later, have now all died. We have not been able to trace any relations of the family who buried a son aged only 18.
Human remembering is like that. Frailty and the passing years take their toll. Sometimes also acts of wanton destruction target our shared memory, just as ISIS is doing as it destroys humanity’s heritage in Syria.
Today we honour the dead, and their sacrifice. We wear poppies, read out the names, observe silence. Historians collate what we do know, and stories re-emerge from obscurity. The memorials are polished and we repair the stones. Through the important rituals of remembrance we keep memory alive and promise that we shall never forget.
‘Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn’. That promise finds its ultimate hope in the love of God. A God who knows each one of us intimately, and loves us. A God who remembers all there is to know, and yet is ready to forgive us through Christ. A God who re-members us – who brings together all the members or parts of our lives, and makes them whole and integrated and healed.
God offers eternal life to us in Christ – and that’s a full life. In God’s memory you or I are not a caricature based on a date of death, a number and a few facts. But a living person, known fully and loved. Where age or frailty cannot diminish.
As it says in our reading: ‘Even if a mother could forget her own child, I will not forget you,’ says God, ‘See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’ Those we have loved, those we remember today, those we have forgotten, are known and remembered by God as surely as if they were tattooed on the palms of his hands. We remember today because God remembers us.