The newspaper whistled up a mob against the Society of Friends by sensationalized, above-the-fold stories about Avery Lane’s grave in North Fairfield. Its coverage may have boosted circulation, but, sad to say, it also incited religious prejudice.

Minimally competent Internet research would have revealed greater complexities than simple vandalism at work here. The newspaper, however, either ignored the Friends’ point of view or buried it deep, depicting the North Fairfield Meeting as cruel to a grieving mother.

Maureen Milliken (Kennebec Tales, June 5) admitted that “the story kind of ran off the rails,” but she ignored the newspaper’s role in inflaming the public and vilifying the Friends. (No Q-word here, by the way; it mocked the early Friends and still offends.)

Friends led the struggle for religious freedom, justice for Native Americans, abolition of slavery, and humane treatment for the imprisoned and mentally ill. Founded in 1784 by Friends escaping religious harassment in Massachusetts, North Fairfield was a stop for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.

An association now maintains the cemetery, which — unlike most — is not publicly owned. The graves are tended by dedicated relatives.

Silence and simplicity have been central to Friends’ religious practice for 350 years. They reject over-the-top sentimentality for plain speech, plain dress, plain life, plain death. The earliest graves in the cemetery are unmarked, and later graves — including my family’s — have simple white stones.

From this ancient quietist perspective, noisemakers such as wind chimes profoundly violate sacred silent space. Visually, kitty cats and pinwheels are equally objectionable. Avery’s mother sought a plot close to graves of other family members, so the association reasonably could have assumed that her family knew the tradition.

Were these incidents acts of vandalism, therefore, or of religious freedom? Did someone simply remove intrusive items in defense of deeply held beliefs? Remember that Avery’s headstone and actual grave were untouched, and there was no other damage. (Cemetery vandals usually spread indiscriminate destruction.)

The cemetery association tried to be gentle with Avery’s mother, respecting her grief — as do we all — and giving her time for healing.

The way the newspaper sensationalized the matter, however, it only encouraged people to drop off additional items considered inappropriate by the faith.

Big thumbs down to the newspaper on this one.

Richard Hunt is a college professor retired to his native Fairfield.


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