We Gather Together
Of reunions and remembrances
by Cynthia W. Rossano
Reunioners, like these members of the class of '48, celebrate both each other and absent friends. Jim Harrison
"In the village of Cambridge this day was the ideal and the realization of perfect festivity," wrote John Holmes, A.B. 1832, describing a colonial Commencement in The Harvard Book of 1875. Holmes told of people arriving "on Monday by coaster;" by Tuesday evening "the arrivals thickened, of dusty one-horse chaises and horsemen with fat saddle-bags. All animated nature was wide awake in Cambridge," he claimed, and added that "it never rained on Commencement." By the time he noted that "The Market-Place (Harvard Square) and parts adjacent were filled," and "all reasonable people were now in a blissful state," he might have been describing Commencement week in this century rather than a scene of more than 200 years ago.
Bright color and high excitement are still the order of the day (see "Reading the Regalia," page 32B). High above the colorful panoply, in the steeple of Memorial Church, the 5,000-pound College bell peals out just before noon on Commencement morning, joining the bells of Cambridge in joyously signaling the close of the exercises. At other times during the week the bell, given by President A. Lawrence Lowell and inscribed "In Memory of Voices that are Hushed," rings for the dead as well as for the living.
Periodic class reunions at Commencement began early in the nineteenth century, according to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who reminds us that in President John Thornton Kirkland's time a "classmate" was very dear and meant "something more than a brother." It followed naturally, then, that as part of their reunion celebrations, classes gradually began to hold memorial services to honor classmates who had died. Now, on every day of Commencement week, alumni ebb and flow through Memorial Church and other Cambridge churches for the memorial services that are as much a reunion constant as the evening at Pops, the symposium, and the class photograph.
The Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, has conducted more Harvard memorial services than anyone: "From 1972 without surcease," he says. He knows, having conducted memorial services of the fifth reunion right through to the seventieth, "that the essence of a reunion is the connection between the living and the dead, and that there are more dead than there are living."
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.B. 1821, reflecting on the College's bicentennial celebrations, who wrote of the "endless train of ghosts in the Yard," and the ghosts are with us, too: those who have gone before and those whose names especially tease in our minds during Commencement week. The Reverend Harold Bend Sedgwick '30 cites the memorial service as the "event most attended at reunions and the most poignant part of any reunion. We always invite the widows," he says, "and in our class, as the years went on and the list of classmates became longer, we would no longer read them out individually. We now print them in the program, and the class stands with bowed heads as the bell tolls, after which we sing 'Fair Harvard.'" Over time, Sedgwick found so many memorial services scheduled in Memorial Church that he occasionally relocated his class to the First Parish Unitarian Church in the Square, "where the bicentennial service was held," he says, "and where President Eliot was inaugurated."
Organizing the memorial services, the connecting of the past to the present and future, is undertaken by each class committee. Almost every class includes clergy from varying denominations who assist in conducting the 50-minute service, which incorporates music and readings--sometimes a new poem or prose piece submitted by a classmate--that have particular meaning. In preparing for her class's thirtieth-reunion service, the Reverend Anne C. Fowler '68, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, "just felt it intuitively right not to have a sermon or homily": the ceremony included a Buddhist prayer, Kaddish, and readings from Scripture. Her classmate, the Reverend John A. Buehrens, M.Div. '73, president of the Unitarian Universalist Society and chaplain of the twenty-fifth reunion, decided to convene the families and friends of the deceased for a private healing prayer following the service. All of this planning notwithstanding, for many alumni the slow tolling of the College bell is the most deeply poignant part of a deeply moving service.
According to Jessica A. Barry, the Harvard Alumni Association's assistant director for classes and reunions and twenty-fifth-reunion coordinator, some of the younger classes--which previously did not hold memorial services before the twenty-fifth reunion--now do so. "With AIDS," she says, "there has been a heightened sensitivity and a rush of willingness to honor their dead." Barry's predecessor, Marion Briefer, agrees that the depth of feeling engendered in the memorial services is "surprising, especially to the younger classes."
"You'd better be good, Guttu!" a classmate called to the Reverend Lyle R. Guttu '58 as they jogged past each other early on the morning of their fortieth reunion's memorial service, "because this is the first time I've ever been in that church, and I'm doing it for you!" Guttu, vice-provost and chaplain of Wagner College, says, "Many classmates think that because they see the service listed on the schedule, they should attend. Afterward, they are demonstrably surprised by how moved they are." The Reverend Edward O. Miller Jr. '70, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in McLean, Virginia, who conducted his class's twenty-fifth-reunion memorial service, believes that "the memorial service is the one time in the week where death is consciously acknowledged as part of life. Informal conversations go on all the time during reunion week, but the memorial service focuses as an explicit reminder."
It is fitting that Harvard honors her dead in services in Memorial Church, itself dedicated in 1932 as a gift of the alumni to the University "In Grateful Memory of the Harvard Men who died in the World War...," and it is almost impossible to enter into the soul of a memorial service therein without one's glance lingering upon the 691 names engraved on the south wall of the sanctuary, arranged by class, faculty, and graduate school beneath the inscription, "In Memory of Those who Gave their Lives in World War II." Memorial plaques dedicated to those Harvard men who died in the service of Germany and her allies, and to the Harvard dead of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, attract the eye and tug at the heart.
Here in this beautiful space the dead are recalled, here for a few quiet moments the living reflect upon their Harvard days, here alumni see or hear the name of someone especially close whose laughter lilts in the inner mind, or of a little-known yet vividly remembered classmate who sat in the next seat, lived across the hall, or took part in the same activity. To each living classmate the names and images of the deceased, no matter how well or little known, bring a catch to the throat and a burning behind the eyes; each derives comfort from the knowledge that he or she will hold a place forever in this particular class as in the history of Harvard, joining the long continuum that is Emerson's "endless train of ghosts."
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