Ten years ago, my wife and I visited the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi in India. Inscribed on the slab of black marble at Raj Ghat, New Delhi, are the words, Hai Ram, roughly translated as O Lord. They were the last words spoken by the great man as he was felled by an assassin's bullet. Gandhi's epitaph may hold the record for brevity.
The lines etched in stone to mourn someone's death are always cryptic, with an obscure universe of meaning hidden in snippets of elegant poetry or brutal prose. By their very nature, they inspire us to rummage through our ancestral past to unearth the secret stories.
One such epitaph appears on a single weathered monument erected in 1933 at the old churchyard between Quenton's Cove and Ward's Harbour, Newfoundland, by Andrew and Bertha (Normore) Hewlett of Long Island, Notre Dame Bay.
On the family tree, Andrew is my first cousin, three times removed. We shared common ancestors, ggg grandparents, Robert and Mary (Heath) Hewlett, two immortals who made the ancestral leap across the Atlantic from the West Country of England in the summer of 1835.
In Loving Memory.
The cemetery is tucked into a small wooded valley where the souls of the dead enjoy the soothing breezes from the ocean nearby.
On the left column of the monument, the inscription: Ernest Gordon, Beloved Son of Andrew and Bertha Hewlett. Killed by Falling Over a Cliff. August 2, 1929. Aged 13 Years and 10 Months.
The description of the cause of death reminded me of an anecdote about the famous writer, Ernest Hemmingway. On a ten-dollar bet, in a Brooklyn bar, sometime in the 1920s, he supposedly penned the shortest saddest story ever written: For sale. Baby shoes, never worn. Just a half-dozen words that needed only some quiet reflection on the implied tragedy of a tiny life cut short and happiness denied.
Hemmingway was likely inspired by epitaphs he had seen in cemeteries of the day.
Killed by Falling Over a Cliff would rank favorably with Hemmingway's classic.
The tragic incident occurred at the Grey Islands off the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Grey Island Harbour was a favored fishing station for Long Island fishermen in the late 1920s and 1930s. Boys as young as eleven years took their place alongside their fathers as part of a fishing crew. At thirteen, the boys were expected to assume adult responsibilities and by sixteen, were considered full-time sharemen.
In 1929, Andrew and his son, Ernest, were two of Skipper Joe Short's crew.
August 2, 1929, was a Friday, normally a long workday in the hectic life of a fisherman, but for whatever reason, Ernest had gone to the cliffs south of Grey Island Harbour probably to capture young seabirds from the nesting sites.
There, his friend from Beaumont caught up to him with a love letter from a special girl in Ward's Harbour. As he reached for the letter, Ernest slipped, lost his balance, and fell to his death.
Bertha's and Andrew's grief would last forever.
Weep not Dear Parents, Brothers, and Sister Dear
Disturb not Our Rest.
1921 Census of Newfoundland.
Cemetery Transcriptions, Long Island, Newfoundland.
Special thanks to Mr. Job Burton (now deceased) who told us stories of his days as a fisherman at the Grey Islands.